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The year was 1991. It had been two years since Disney successfully launched the Disney Renaissance with The Little Mermaid (1989), and now the time for their next animated classic had come: Beauty and the Beast (1991). The movie adapts the classic French fairy tale of a beautiful girl named Belle (which is French for “Beauty”) who slowly falls in love with a terrifying Beast, not knowing that he is actually a prince trapped in an enchantment.
The score for this film was composed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Ashman, suffering from AIDS, did not want to work on the film originally but was eventually persuaded to do so. His health took a turn for the worst during production and he died not long after work was completed on the film (though a few of his songs did appear in Aladdin.)
“Belle” is the opening number of the film and serves as our introduction to the book loving Belle, who is considered “a funny girl” by almost everyone else in town. The exceptions to this are, her father Maurice, the book-seller, and Gaston (more on him later). The song begins with Belle leaving her cottage and walking into town, singing about how every day is the same in this quiet village (a fact that bores her immensely). As the townspeople wake up and sing “Bonjour!” (Good morning/Good day) to each other, Belle lists off all the familiar sights that she has memorized by heart. But Belle is clearly dissatisfied and sings her refrain of “there must be more than this provincial life.” Having read all of these stories of adventure and romance, Belle dreams of finding her Prince Charming and being swept away to lands unknown.
Now, before I continue, there’s something that should be pointed out. The Disney animators wanted to emphasize how Belle is different from everyone else in the village. To that end, they color-coded her outfit to stand out. Look at the scene of “Belle.” See the blue pinafore she’s wearing? No one else in town is wearing the color blue, not one! Automatically Belle stands out to the eye (and it’s very effective). But I digress, back to the music…
Unfortunately (for Belle), there is a “Prince Charming” who is very much interested in her, the town hero Gaston. When you first meet him, Gaston appears to be the stereotypical Disney hero: perfect good looks and a great singing voice (though this was by design to serve as a contrast to what comes later). For all his gifts though, Gaston is a huge narcissist, who thinks that he (Gaston) can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, BECAUSE he is Gaston!! This includes marrying Belle, “the most beautiful girl in town” because he “deserves the best” (the fact that Belle might not WANT to marry him doesn’t seem to make a difference). Gaston attempts to sing his own verse about how he fell in love with Belle at first sight, but it’s interspersed with lines praising his own handsomeness (you just know this “romance” is not going to end well).
As Belle prepares to leave town to head back home, the entire community begins to sing about her and this last verse sums up how much the town doesn’t “get” Belle:
Look there she goes, the girl is strange but special, a most peculiar mademoiselle/
It’s a pity and a sin, she doesn’t quite fit in/but she really is a funny girl, a beauty but a funny girl, she really is a funny girl, that Belle!
Belle has always been my favorite Disney Princess ever since I first saw the film, because, like me, Belle is a bookworm, and she feels somewhat isolated because of this (this last part was true when I was younger). Belle also dreams of adventure in far off places (and what young person doesn’t?) Interestingly, we never learn how old Belle is, or anything about her mother for that matter (we can presume she’s deceased, but when or how long ago is never broached). This is also one of my favorite Disney songs because, unlike, say, Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, where the singer is a high soprano, Belle is a mezzo-soprano (which is my vocal range).
I admit, when I was younger (a lot younger) I used to wish that real life included people singing as they went about their daily lives, so sometimes I would pretend (as I was walking around) that people were singing the “Belle” song about me (ah, the power of imagination).
That’s all for “Belle”, next time, as predicted, Gaston’s courting of Belle doesn’t exactly go as planned, and for that he’ll want revenge!!
*all images are the property of Walt Disney Studios
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