The bride and I recently saw the new live-action version of "Beauty and the Beast" in a Sunday-morning showing at a local Cinemark. The movie had been out for more than a week, but the theater was crowded, especially with children, although some of the reserved seats ended up unfilled. (The only seats together that were available when we arrived were in the closest front rows -- no thank you -- or in the next to last row, which is where we sat.)
The movie itself was quite lovely, with good main performances from Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, not to mention the formidable vocals of Audra McDonald. I enjoyed it more than the ambitious but not quite satisfying screen version of "Into the Woods." That said, my admiration for "Beauty" has a couple of caveats: Angela Lansbury's rendition of the "Beauty and the Beast" song from the 1991 animated movie is unmatchably lovely, always touching my heart. And my favorite Le Fou is my younger son, Conor Heldenfels, who played the part when his high school did the musical.
But that latter thought may partly explain why the new "Beauty" has been such a huge success ($348 million in revenues in North America alone, after just two weeks). Audiences have an enormous personal connection to this tale, and especially to Disney's animated version.
The first time I saw a screen version of "Beauty and the Beast," it was in a black-and-white TV show. (I want to say it was on Shirley Temple's series, which featured a production starring Claire Bloom and Charlton Heston in 1958; I would have been 7 then, but I can't vouch for that as the one I remember.) I still have some grainy images in my memory bank, especially of the old man getting caught as he takes a rose -- and a recollection of a scary beast. But where I am sure there were other productions I glimpsed in the following years, the one that took a permanent place in my affections was, is, the animated Disney version in 1991.
The Disney animation revival had begun in 1989, with "The Little Mermaid," but it peaked with "Beauty and the Beast," which should still be considered among the all-time best Disney cartoon features. The tunes were great, the voice actors wonderful. (Jerry Orbach is singing "Be Our Guest" in my head right now.) And there was that tale as old as time, a romance with a message, one that told countless young people that a good heart outranks good looks -- and to find the heart you have to go past appearance.
I wasn't in the target audience. I was a single father with two young sons. But it spoke to me, much as it did to all those younger viewers; I still choke up when hearing Lansbury sing. Yes, there was an enormous Disney marketing machine behind the film, the sort of machine that generated ancillary product such as the direct-to-video Christmas feature. But marketing can take you only so far; you have to have product that resonates, as "Beauty and the Beast" and later "Frozen" have, to turn a success into a phenomenon.
And then, it's the audience that makes the phenomenon enduring. "Beauty and the Beast" was so appealing that it led to the stage musical, which then led to tons of high-school productions such as the one in which my son appeared. So, over the course of the 25-plus years since the animated film premiered, audiences had a relationship that included not only memories of the movie (said memories then leading to the sharing of the film with another generation) but connections to it from seeing friends and neighbors and your own children recreating the production onstage.
When the live-action movie arrived, it was therefore tapping into decades of varieties of love: love of the movie, love of the songs, love of the people you've seen singing and acting in the stage show. Again, this might have meant nothing if the new movie was not good; its success might not have lasted beyond the opening weekend. Only the movie is good, very good. And that makes its connection to our pasts so much stronger.