the race to animate

The Story of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast Screening That Changed Everything

Photo: Buena Vista Pictures

It starts with a series of black-and-white drawings. Scratched-up pencil animations of a dense forest, with woodland creatures and a live-action babbling brook appear next, as the camera moves toward a castle in the distance. Then, stained-glass glimpses of a fairy-tale flashback: A petulant prince, felled by the curse of an enraged enchantress, transforms into a transparent, pencil-sketch beast. The voice of Paige O’Hara soars on the soundtrack — “Little town, it’s a quiet village / Every day, like the one before …” — accompanied by rough storyboards of our lively young heroine, Belle, stepping out of her house. She wanders, singing, through her pleasant French village, all rough lines and charcoal shades. It’s not until the windows open up and townspeople start greeting her with a series of bouncy bonjours do we witness the final animation in all its breathtaking, full-color glory.

If this sounds like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, that’s because it is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. If it doesn’t quite look like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, that’s because it’s an unfinished, work-in-progress version of the animated classic that premiered on September 29, 1991, in what at the time seemed like the unlikeliest of venues: the New York Film Festival, America’s most prestigious showcase of international and art-house fare. Held at Alice Tully Hall, that screening remains, to this day, among the most levitational events in the festival’s history — so much so that they had a tribute screening in 2016 to mark its 25th anniversary — and a key moment in what would eventually come to be known as the Disney Renaissance.

The idea of a much-anticipated animated family blockbuster premiering to a discerning crowd of highbrow film enthusiasts may not seem like such a big deal nowadays — after all, Shrek 2 somehow opened Cannes in 2004 — but in 1991, it was downright inconceivable to many. “We got a fair amount of flak for it at the time,” recalls Richard Peña, who was then in his fourth year as program director of the festival. “I remember my dear friend, the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, asking, ‘What’s next? A retrospective screening of Casablanca?’”

Peña himself hadn’t been entirely certain what to make of the idea when he’d gotten a call in early August from the Walt Disney Company. “Listen,” the voice on the other end of the line had said, “we were wondering if you would be willing to have a look at Beauty and the Beast.” The programming team had been putting the finishing touches on that year’s festival slate, which included pictures like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique and Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse — not exactly the kind of movies among which one would expect to find a musical romance from the Mouse House. Disney was seen as corporate, antiseptic, G-rated, while the New York Film Festival had introduced American audiences to the early work of Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Martin Scorsese.

What’s more, Beauty and the Beast was only about 60 to 70 percent finished. The “work-in-progress” version incorporated four different stages from the movie’s long, arduous creation: storyboards, rough pencil-sketch animation, cleaned-up black-and-white animation, and final color footage. You could see coffee stains and paper folds and marginalia. Sometimes a character would be accompanied by arrows and hand-scribbled numbers. (The film had been in production for four years but in development for decades. There had been numerous abortive starts, and the project had come close to having the plug pulled on it several times.)

But in some ways, that unfinished quality made it just right for a film-literate audience. “This would really show us the skeleton,” Peña says. “It was like an X-ray, in that you were really seeing inside the image and how it’s constructed.” Wendy Keys, at the time an executive producer at Film at Lincoln Center and a member of the festival’s selection committee, calls it “a lesson in the process of animation. While watching it, you were learning things, but you were not losing the narrative thread. And you also had the emotional impact of not only the scenes, but the characters as well.”

The initial idea of the screening was reportedly the brainchild of Gary Kalkin, Disney’s senior vice-president of domestic marketing, who had pitched the idea to the studio’s motion picture chief Jeffrey Katzenberg as a way to generate early buzz about the film. “This was revolutionary for Disney, because there’s not a lot in the history of the company where you showed how the sausage is made,” says Dan Scheffey, who at the time was director of Disney’s East Coast publicity team. The company had occasionally shown animation cels and clips of pencil tests over the years, but never a whole feature-length work-in-progress like this, toggling between different states of completion.

Disney had struggled through a long decline in the 1970s and ’80s, at which point many thought the animation department was done for. But a period of revival began in the mid-1980s with an upheaval in leadership that resulted in Michael Eisner becoming CEO and Frank Wells president. Katzenberg had been brought in to lead the motion picture division, Peter Schneider became president of the animation department, and Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney — who had resigned from the company in the 1970s but had been responsible for some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to Eisner’s appointment — became chairman of animation. (As you might expect, these were a lot of egos to manage, and it would all eventually blow up. More on that in a bit.)

The success of 1989’s The Little Mermaid was seen as a triumph for the animation division and a potential return to the glory days of Uncle Walt. The following year’s The Rescuers Down Under, however, had tanked. Beauty and the Beast would be the true test of whether the Disney resurgence was real, and whether these films could expand their audience beyond the usual crowd of impressionable kids and mildly engaged parents. To that end, Beauty and the Beast was being promoted as more than just a cartoon. Marketing had started targeting adults with tasteful, elegant posters that were quite different from the more colorful advertising aimed at kids.

Even so, screening an unfinished cut of their prized new property two months before it was due to open theatrically had a walking-into-the-lion’s-den quality to it. “My co-director Gary Trousdale and I, and our producer Don Hahn, we were actually very nervous about it,” says Beauty and the Beast co-director Kirk Wise. “We were very intimidated by the notion of showing the movie with storyboards and rough animation. One, we didn’t know if the audience would be able to follow it. And two, we sort of felt like magicians who were going onstage and showing how our tricks were done. ‘See, look. This hat has a hole in it. That’s how we pull the rabbit out!’”

“The festival went out on a limb by doing this, and Disney went out on a limb by doing this, so everybody was out of their traditional comfort zone,” says Scheffey.

Any feelings of apprehension dissipated, however, when the first full musical number, “Belle,” was met with a rapturous festival audience response that September night. “They burst into wild applause just as though they were seeing a show on Broadway live,” recalls Wise. “And Gary [Trousdale] and I just looked at each other and were like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ That was just a magic moment.” Peña adds, “I was with someone somebody from Disney, and I remember we looked at each other and shook hands. We knew at that point the audience was hooked.”

Miraculously, the audience remained rapt. “It just kept going. There was huge applause and roars after a lot of the production numbers,” recalls Keys. “It was insane. The enthusiasm was ecstatic — myself included. I’d already seen the movie, but I was reacting to the audience. People were tearful with joy. We were all roaring with pleasure.” When the film finally ended, the crowd gave it a standing ovation that some clocked at ten minutes. Roy Disney was glowing. Katzenberg walked up to Peña and said, calmly, “I’ll remember this.”

After that event, writes Disney historian Josh Spiegel, “it became clear that this was a film with the potential to be a crossover success, as much to adults as to children.” Within two months, Beauty and the Beast would open in theaters to rave reviews, with many critics noting the triumphant New York Film Festival screening in their assessments (as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert do in this clip). It would make nearly $430 million worldwide and garner six Oscar nominations. It was the first-ever Best Picture Oscar nominee for an animated movie, and while Up and Toy Story 3 have also been nominated for that award since, Beauty remains the only one to get the nod in the era when only five titles could be nominated in the category. Within a few years, other studios would also sprout their own feature animation departments. By 2001, the Academy would introduce a whole new Best Animated Feature Oscar.

“I really do feel that screening represented the real turning point in terms of the audience perception of these movies,” says Wise. “From Beauty and the Beast onward, I think animation managed to escape the kids’-movie ghetto we’d been consigned to for so long. It made the audience look at it as not just cartoons, but as film — which is something that my fellow students and colleagues and I had yearned for, for years. I think that look behind the curtain really did give the audience a much clearer understanding of the complexity of these movies, and just how much art and decision-making and planning goes into them.”

And in the end, maybe such a screening in such a venue wasn’t so odd a match. By 1991, Disney animation was already on its way to becoming a mainstream juggernaut — making the kind of four-quadrant movies that would appeal to grown-ups as well as kids, and win awards in the process. The festival itself was also in the midst of a transformation: Though it never abandoned its role as a showcase for major international films, it was also broadening its footprint, becoming a platform for mainstream awards-season contenders.

There was a somber note to that evening, however — one that would become even sadder as the years wore on. Lyricist Howard Ashman, who, along with Alan Menken, was responsible for Beauty and the Beast’s soon-to-be-immortal songs, had died of complications from AIDS in March of ’91, and the film was dedicated to him. The disease would take a further toll on the company. Kalkin, who had had the idea of the screening in the first place, would die in 1995 — the cause was AIDS. “There were all these people who I worked with in my seven years at Disney,” says Scheffey. “There was Gary, and Ed Pine, who worked for Gary, and Robert Jahn. It was a marketing department and a world that just got completely decimated by AIDS.”

Another death would rock the company a few years later. In 1994, Disney president Frank Wells died in a helicopter crash, setting off a power struggle at the top that would result in Katzenberg’s departure in 1994 — right after the release of what would become the biggest animated hit of the Disney Renaissance, The Lion King — and his co-founding of Dreamworks, with its rival animation studio, soon thereafter. Disney would release more animated hits, but declining box-office returns and the emergence of computer animation company Pixar would eventually result in the end of hand-drawn feature animation at the company.

The work-in-progress version of Beauty and the Beast is, as far as I can tell, not currently available on Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+. It was released as a laser disc in 1992, and is also available on the 2002 Platinum Edition DVD of the film. It is, truth be told, my favorite way to watch Beauty and the Beast, and a unique work of art in its own right. One of the reasons why movies should always be thought of as more than just “content” is because, in both their perfections and imperfections, they are conduits to the people who made them; they channel the energies of their creators. As it switches between different formats, this version of Beauty and the Beast not only reveals years of toil, it also gathers an experimental, mixed-media beauty all its own.

But there is drama to it, too: We watch these characters and this world go from storyboard to pencil sketch to full-color bursts of wonder and then back again, and we sense both the ephemeral quality of cinema and its tactile beauty. The film rejuvenates itself and becomes new again before our eyes, so much so that we can almost imagine ourselves in that New York crowd that evening in September of 1991. It is cinema in a nutshell: human, constructed, imperfect, and yet still magically transcendent.

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The Beauty and the Beast Screening That Changed Everything