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The story behind the iconic recording of Angela Lansbury singing the title song from Beauty and the Beast was among the highlights of a panel Monday that preceded a 25th anniversary 70mm screening of Disney’s 1991 animated classic at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater.
A film that changed the course of the feature animation business, Beauty and the Beast was the first animated movie to earn a best picture Oscar nomination — at a time when there were only five nominees and a decade before the best animated feature category was born. It won Academy Awards for its score and the title song, composed by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, who was fondly remembered by the panel.
Lansbury recalled Menken and Ashman asking her to play the character of Mrs. Potts during a phone call and playing a recording of the title song that was more rock-oriented. The actress got a laugh when she added that she asked them if should could make “a more realistic version of how a teapot would sing it. … I did my version and I’m happy to say that version became the version.”
As it turned out, Lansbury’s flight was delayed on the day of the scheduled recording session in New York. Recalled producer Don Hahn: “I said, ‘Let’s do it tomorrow,’ and she said, ‘No, no, I’m coming in.” She came in, greeted the orchestra, went into the isolation booth and sang the song just once. It was perfect and we put it in the movie.”
David Ogden Stiers, the voice of Cogsworth in the pic, recalled that session, saying that Ashman gave his hand a tight grip as she finished. “He knew it was an indelible moment,” said the actor.
“I heard there wasn’t a dry eye,” added Paige O’Hara, who voiced Belle.
During Monday’s discussion, Mark Henn, Belle’s supervising animator, said the character was a unique leading lady. “She was more mature, she was comfortable with herself,” he said, adding that the relationship between Belle and the Beast felt real in that “it wasn’t love at first sight — you see the relationship grow.”
Brenda Chapman, key story artist on the film, said she channeled Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the the scene during which the Beast and Belle fight off wolves. “Beast was grumpy, and Belle yelled back at him. It was very Tracy-Hepburn,” she said.
Glen Keane, the Beast’s supervising animator, remembered looking for inspiration by visiting a zoo to see gorillas (“but they wouldn’t let me in the cage”) and asking Hahn for a fake buffalo head.
Hahn quipped, “My expense report looked really weird that week.”
Andreas Deja, Gaston’s supervising animator, recalled how Jeffrey Katzenberg guided the character’s look after seeing an early version from the opening song “Belle.” “Jeffrey said, ‘The acting is fine, but he’s not handsome enough.’ He said the story is about ‘don’t judge a book by its cover.’ We find out Gaston’s completely full of himself.”
Deja also got a laugh when he recalled that in animating his character for the song “Gaston,” the villain’s chest hair was a topic of debate. “[At first] it had an unsettling look. Everyone had an opinion on what it should look like,” he said.
Roughly a dozen filmmakers and castmembers from the production participated in the conversation, including Robby Benson, who voiced the Beast; Richard White, who voiced Gaston; story supervisor Roger Allers; and director Gary Trousdale. Another 12 joined them onstage for a group photo. There wasn’t an empty seat in the theater, and during the screening, each musical number earned applause including the humorous “Gaston,” the crowd-pleaser “Be Our Guest” and the title ballad.
Talking with The Hollywood Reporter during the event’s opening reception, Hahn attributed the film’s timeless appeal to relatable characters. Referring to the Beast, he said, “We’ve all felt awkward and like no one can love us.”
He continued: “Belle wasn’t looking for a man, she was looking for adventure. That’s something we can relate to. It’s almost ahead of its time in terms of that kind of story … people come up to me and say, ‘I’ve dated guys like Gaston.'”
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