This 'Beauty & The Beast' Song Is The Most Underrated Tune In Disney History
I worry a bit that the live-action Beauty and the Beast movie won’t hold a candle (living or otherwise) to the opening sequence of the original movie. Not because I don't have faith in Emma Watson, but because I have been forever moved by the film’s introductory track, “Belle” — first as a toddler watching the video in a yellow Halloween dress, and more recently as a 25-year-old blasting it off my iPhone in a Brooklyn farmer’s market. And all these years later, I can still vouch that the criminally underrated “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast is the greatest Disney song ever... or at least has the credentials to be a top contender.
When we open on the poor provincial town our titular heroine resents, the music begins sleepy and splinters off into a frenzy of "Bonjours." It's clear that everyone is going to be put to good use in this sequence, and the hustle and bustle of the community is punctuated by passing lines of dialogue. These exchanges pepper the opening, from her exuberant conversations with the librarian to the baker's benign dismissal of, "That's nice. Marie, the baguettes!" (Which, by the way, I will never not find hilarious). It all adds up to a structure much more akin to a musical versus a movie with music, and it's no wonder that Beauty and the Beast became a highly successful Broadway venture two years later; it was primed for the stage from the get-go.
Incidentally, there's a kernel of sadness to the creation of "Belle" and that's what makes it so unique and magical. In a 2015 Entertainment Weekly interview, composer Alan Menken talked about proposing the ambitious song to Disney during a particularly tense time. Lyricist Howard Ashman had been diagnosed as HIV-positive, and was mired in fear about sending out the seven-minute monolith. Menken recalled the anxiety:
"I remember Howard was very, very reluctant to send it out, thinking that we were going to be laughed at. He delayed sending it for two days. Finally, of course, we sent it, and Disney loved it. You didn’t open an animated movie with a seven-minute number, but it redefined the form."
Ashman passed eight months before the release of the film, and Beauty and the Beast was subsequently dedicated to his memory. And with that tragedy comes an extra layer of poignancy. Menken and Ashman took a creative risk by pushing for the extensive opening sequence. Striving to create true art within animation, an iconic intro to be repurposed, is a sparkling gold star on Ashman's legacy.
And don't think that "Belle" hasn't been repurposed time and time again. South Park: Bigger, Longer, And Uncut perfectly parodies "Belle" with Stan Marsh singing about his quiet mountain town (although you can also hear whispers of "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" in there). More recently (and marginally more innocently) you can hear echoes of "Belle" in the opening song for My Little Pony Friendship is Magic episode "Pinkie Pride." And as far as Disney history itself is concerned... well, basically every movie since has had to step up its song game.
But with no prejudice in the world at all (OK, maybe just a little) "Belle," in particular, is grabbing because it focuses on the greatest Disney Princess out there... or like, top five, you want to be a little more objective. More importantly, it takes a different approach to dissecting the inventor's daughter. This easily could've been another celebration of Belle's radiant beauty (because as the film's title suggest, she isn't difficult to look at). Instead, it focuses on Belle as a sort of pleasant outsider in town, a mysterious low-key rebel. Her beauty, to everyone but Gaston, is merely a footnote. So in essence, the song gives viewers a very interesting perspective on our heroine... and how many other Disney Princess songs basically laud their main girl as a weirdo? Don't answer that.
Like the character at the core of the song, "Belle" is sort of a bizarre sell for the number one in Disney. Hell, it may not even be the best song in the movie: it lacks the Parisian-style fanfare of "Be Our Guest," the painting-perfect ballroom romance of "Beauty and the Beast," and the growler-swinging swagger of "Gaston." More than any of that, the lengthy, Broadway-level format doesn't make it ideal for sing-alongs. It seems more marketable to theater nerds than the average Disney fan who just wants to get down to business.
But the amount of heart, of artistry, of fun truly places "Belle" in a league of its own when it comes to Disney music. It's beautiful, of course, but what makes it iconic is it's complexity. If you stop to really listen, to really to get to know it, you'll begin to hear it. So go on, let it soundtrack your next trip to the farmer's market. I'm sure you'll realize how strange and special it really is.
Images: Disney; Giphy