Talking Belle: The Story Behind the Animated Character

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

In 2002, the Library of Congress deemed Disney's animated feature Beauty and the Beast (1991) a "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" film and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

This was the first animated feature to be nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Picture. It lost to The Silence of the Lambs (1991). It was, however, the first full-length animated feature to win the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy).

Before I became known as that "Disney Guy," I was well known in the Los Angeles area as an animation historian.

I began writing articles about animation in the spring 1977 issue of Mindrot (issue #6) published by David Mruz. I went on to write hundreds of columns about animation for a variety of magazines including Animania, Animato, Animation Magazine, ASIFA Inbetweener, Comics Journal, Amazing Heroes, Comics Reader, In Toon, Comics Buyer Guide and others for several decades.

As a result, I got invited to many press events or was sometimes allowed to do a short interview with someone connected with a new animated feature release either in person or over the phone.

This information is not for self aggrandizement, but some readers have wondered where I get some of the many wonderful stories and quotes. I have been around for a long time and I got the opportunity to talk with a lot of people connected with animation when I lived in Los Angeles much of that time.

I lived in the Los Angeles area when the film first came out and it is hard for me to believe that Disney's Beauty and the Beast is now more than 25 years old, since, in my mind, I still consider it a "new" film that helped launch the Disney Animation renaissance.

Even though I interviewed some of the people involved in that film as core material for some of my articles, at the time I never considered it anything special since so many other local media people had the same opportunity and because I was primarily interested in classic Hollywood animation and its creators. I never realized that one day the film would become as old as the classics I was researching at that time.

Today, I am going to share excerpts from some of those interviews that focus particularly on the character of Belle.

Belle is the only person in her village who wears blue so the audience subconsciously realizes she is different from everyone else around her. When she encounters the Beast, he is wearing blue so the audience subconsciously feels the two should be together.

By the way, Belle is the first brown-haired Disney princess. All the others had black or blonde hair, except for Ariel who was redheaded. Belle at the time was also one of the oldest princesses at 18 or 19 years of age.

Previous princesses, like Ariel and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) were only 16 years old. That wasn't unusual. Fleischer Studio press releases for the animated cartoon character Betty Boop listed her as 16 years old, despite her obvious sexuality.

Original concept art of Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Linda Woolverton based Belle on Katherine Hepburn's portrayal of Jo from Little Women.

As professor and expert of classic fairy tales Kevin Yee has pointed out, the story of Beauty and the Beast was actually meant to instruct young women about arranged marriages where love might develop if they learned to look beyond the surface and had patience. The Beast is symbolic of the "animalistic" nature, a euphemism for the sex act, of the new husband.

Kirk Wise, co-director on Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991) said, "[Composer] Howard Ashman helped us structure the story so that the songs support it and grow out of it, rather than feeling tacked on. He insisted that the story was really the Beast's story and his redemption. Of course, Belle is not a passive heroine along for the ride; she is a more active participant who helps redeem the Beast."

As producer Don Hahn said, "It's been a tough story to tell. We looked at all the old source material for Beauty and the Beast. And when we stripped away a lot of the original fairytale material and took a look at it, we saw a story with a lot of psychosexual things. Unfortunately, it's also a story about two people who sit down and have dinner, night after night after night – which needed a little bit of energizing. In the classic Disney tradition we threw all that out and started from scratch… We did actually keep some of it in or it wouldn't be Beauty and the Beast."

The lead animator on Belle in Beauty and the Beast, James Baxter said:

"I've tried to make her move gracefully, even in her everyday sequences. I've got a lot of ballet dancers on video to see how they walk. A walk is like a thumbprint. If you can make it special and consistent through the picture, then you've got a real character coming out.

"Animating a pretty character can be a problem because she can become very ugly very quickly. All it takes is a few misplaced lines. We tried to give (Belle) a lot of ballerina movements. Her walk is very much a ballet dancer's walk. But if you carry that style of movement too far and always keep her little finger extended, she gets prissy and overly feminine. She starts to look like a silent movie star and stops being believable.

"Her general locomotion is very tricky. Her leg action involves some very subtle movements, which are totally contrary to the way you'd animate Mickey Mouse or any other more cartoony character. We're going for realism which requires great subtlety. She must appear not only pretty and graceful but self-reliant and capable. She is a go-getter who instigates the action. She doesn't just sit back and let things happen to her."

In early 1984, animator and producer Don Bluth announced his studio would begin working on an animated version of Beauty and the Beast. Bluth's version had Beauty who was a blonde (to emphasize "innocence") assisted by a number of animals including Nan, a clairvoyant dog; Max, a bird detective; and Otto, an escape artist lizard, as well as King Bats and the Wee Beasties.

Bluth felt his approach would have the same magic as the Disney classic animated features and be, according to him, "a tender love story that says, 'a thing must be loved before it's lovable'."

He worked on the screen play and some storyboards. In the story at one point, the witch Queen Livia, who, being jealous of the prince for rejecting her so she changed him into a beast, would have attempted to manipulate Beauty in her sleep so she would leave the castle and let the Prince die.

When the deal with Steven Spielberg developed for An American Tail (1986), the Beauty and the Beast project was shelved after Bluth tried pitching the idea to Spielberg who rejected it. Bluth was also considering at the time a version of Aladdin which Spielberg also rejected.

During production of The Land Before Time (1988), Bluth found funding for three features and he hoped the first would be Beauty and the Beast, but by then Disney had announced their intention to do the tale, and Bluth reluctantly dropped his project.

He said he feared that two animated features on the same topic at the same time would mean death at the box office for both, especially since his version would come out second because Disney had already gone into production.

Truthfully, Disney had been working on an animated film of Beauty and the Beast since the 1930s, although it was suspected that Jeffrey Katzenberg purposely pushed for a film version to undercut Bluth, who had left the Disney Studio taking some talented animators with him and had become a major competitor.

Perhaps some of the success of the film and the "realness" of Belle came from the fact that it was the first Disney animated film to be written by a woman, Linda Woolverton.

Born in Long Beach, California, Woolverton holds a BFA in Theater Arts from Cal State University Long Beach and a master's degree in Theater for Children from Cal State Fullerton.

Following graduation, she started her own children's theater, for which she performed, wrote and directed productions that traveled to schools, parks, malls, churches, and local playhouses.

In 1980, she began a four-year stint as an executive with CBS Television, where she developed both children's and late-night programming.

Against all advice, she quit and became a full time writer. She wrote two young adult novels, Star Wind and Running Before the Wind, for Houghton Mifflin. She also paid the bills by writing scripts for animated series like Ewoks, The Real Ghostbusters, Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers and Duck Tales.

When one of her novels came to the attention of a Disney executive, she was hired to work on several animated projects including one involving Winnie the Pooh that was eventually shelved.

Woolverton was brought in for a rewrite on Beauty and the Beast and two and a half years afterwards and four completed drafts, she was still working with the project.

She said that she drew her inspiration for her screenplay and approach to the character of Belle, not from the famous 1946 Jean Cocteau film version of the famous tale but from the 1933 film Little Women. Woolverton admitted that there was a lot of actress Katherine Hepburn from that film in her characterization of Belle.

Woolverton's next project was Walt Disney Pictures' live action feature Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993), followed by her work on the animated feature The Lion King (1994).

She provided the book for the Broadway adaptation of Beauty and the Beast that opened in New York in spring 1994.

As part of the publicity tour for the film, I got a chance to interview Woolverton very briefly. I have removed my questions and left her answers about Belle.

Like many of these types of publicity interviews, Woolverton had some already prepared "sound bites" that she also used for the plethora of interviews she had to give so some of what she says here may have appeared almost word-for-word elsewhere in some state's local newspaper.

Even 25 years ago, Disney had an approved narrative although today it is much more intense. I remember animator Andreas Deja slipping and saying to one interviewer that he used Nancy Reagan's face as an inspiration for the villain Jafar in Aladdin and had to quickly deny it and substitute that it was a mask that showed no emotion that inspired him when Disney publicity stepped in firmly.

Linda Woolverton: "I'm just so happy that the world has embraced Belle. In the past we've seen that other animated heroines were reacting to outside forces. Belle isn't like that. She initiates action. She sets things in motion. What is great about her, I think, is that she shows us all that women don't have to sit around and wait.

"I believed strongly in making Belle an independent, thinking, adventurous woman who wasn't waiting for a man to give her a life. I thought that was an important thing to get across to the world. In the fairy tale, she was a lot more feminine – softer, I guess. My Belle has an edge. A lot of my personality went into her. I was not going to write a wimpy female character.

"Now, I don't want to stand here in 1992 and say I think Snow White and Cinderella were negative role models for girls, because that's not fair. They were signs of their time. I have a daughter and when she's old enough, I'm going to let her see those movies.

"I think what that will do is launch a discussion about how women have changed. Because in those movies, women didn't go out and conquer the world. They dreamed about someone to save them from their life. Belle is different. She goes out as a woman and does it herself.

"Aside from the fact that the film has made a lot of money, I feel really good about creating a character who is a positive role model for young girls because that's the audience that's important. They're going to run the world one day soon.

"To Gaston, Belle wasn't a person; she was a possession. And I think it's great for little boys to see that Beauty doesn't choose him. Not only can they look at Gaston as an example of how not to treat women, but they can hopefully be taught by the Beast, a macho guy who is comfortable with his feelings and gentleness. He could teach a lot of men, in fact, about sensitivity.

"Gaston was in my original non-musical draft but he was more of a dandy. She has many suitors in the fairy tale. I made them all one and then Howard [Ashman] turned him into this great character – a parody of a macho hunter. He's a hunter, for one, so he's the opposite of the beast.

"Then, in the end, as the Beast gets more and more human, Gaston turns more and more into a monster. We had an ugly hero so we had to make his nemesis this handsome, full-of-himself hunter. There was a certain balance to it.

"They [Disney] knew I had a feminist sensibility and they were at ease that the same accusations leveled against Mermaid [like Ariel forsaking her family and heritage for a man] wouldn't happen with Beauty and the Beast. I never took part in marches. I just knew I wanted to go out, very much like Belle, and do things myself. I thought I was smart enough to be able to do that.

"I saw Belle as 18 and liberated as a human, not just a woman because she was eccentric. She loves to read, for example, and clearly she's off the beaten track in this medieval village where women just don't do that.

"The only thing I wrote [to describe Belle physically] was 'she has a little wisp of hair that keeps falling in her face'. Because I wanted her not to be perfect. It was important that not every hair be in place.

"Her love of books was to show that she had an open mind, that she was available to new concepts and ideas. One of my big things with the character was showing her love of adventure. That's why in the scene where her father goes off to collect his prize money, you see her at home sticking pins in a map, marking off all the places she wants to visit when they get the money.

"That day I showed up, they [the male Disney animators] had thrown out the map business and she was shown baking a 'Welcome home, Papa!' cake in the kitchen. Animation is a collaborative process so it was more a matter of saying, 'Well, guys, that's not in her character. She wouldn't even know how to bake.' Fortunately, they listened to me.

"I sometimes had to fight a little bit to make sure she maintained her strength. I was a watchdog to make sure she didn't fall back into stereotypical behavior. I think she comes off pretty independent.

"I gotta hand it to Jeffrey Katzenberg because he would see scenes like that and say, 'Does that seem consistent with who Belle is, Linda?' He never told me to make her more liberated but he did turn to me a lot as a barometer.

"In the past what we've seen is that other animated heroines were reacting to outside forces with their fate in the hands of men. Belle isn't like that. She initiates action. She sets things in motion. What is great about her, I think, is that she shows us all that women don't have to sit around and wait.

"They had her crying too much when she was in the Beast's castle. She cried all the time. I said, 'Guys, I don't think she would cry this much. I mean, I wouldn't cry this much. She could cry once or twice.' I thought she'd be looking for a way out, or she'd be intrigued that she was living in an enchanted castle.

"I've always been a big fan of escapes. I realized that could be the turning point of the relationship. At that point she understands he's not going to harm her in any way. They can commence to fall in love after that.

"I have made a point of asking mothers if the movie is too intense for their little kids and the thing I always hear is 'no'. I've seen 8-year=olds sit through the scene with the attack wolves and not even flinch.

"Sure the Beast is scary initially. He's supposed to be because he is, after all, a beast. But we present his back story early on so you understand his actions. If there is any controversy over a supposed violence level, I don't understand that at all.

"The basic theme is 'Love is letting go'. It's about if you love something, you love it so much that you become secondary. The beast isn't truly transformed until he lets her go. To me, that's when he becomes a human being. His story is about finding you've changed and learning you were wrong."