The late eighties were hugely important for Walt Disney Animation Studios, as the studio found itself flush with exciting new talent and producing the kind of films that Walt Disney himself could be proud of. In 1987, during the whirlwind production of the groundbreaking live action/animation hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a proposal was floated to resurrect an idea that Walt had batted around since the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs days: the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, told in classic animated fashion. And while we now recognize the film that was released, finally, in 1991 to widespread critical and commercial approval as an immortal classic, the first attempt to get the film off the ground was unsuccessful. But in its failure, it paved the way for the film that we cherish today.
While production wouldn’t get underway, in earnest, until 1987, the first treatment for this version of Beauty and the Beast can be traced back to 1983. As Tale as Old as Time: The Art and Making of Beauty and the Beast, Charles Solomon’s indispensable history notes, this pitch was crafted by Pete Young, Vance Gerry and Steve Hulett, all veteran Disney employees (Gerry was a layout artist in 1959) who would at least get the ball rolling. Three years later, two newer Disney artists (Phil Nibbelink and Steven E. Gordon) wrote another treatment, but again it contained elements mostly abandoned by the final production (including a character described by Solomon as “a falcon that pretends to be a stuffed bird and serves as a confidant and sidekick”). The version of Beauty and the Beast we know and love would really not begin to form until 1988, when Jim Cox, coming off work on Oliver & Company and The Rescuers Down Under, submitted two treatments.
Cox’s treatments laid the groundwork: the rural French setting, Belle’s father becoming a lovable inventor, and the enchanted items in the Beast’s castle (inspired, in part, by the 1946 black-and-white Jean Cocteau version of the story, a film that partially dissuaded Walt from making his own version). This treatment was enough to get Disney executives on board but once Cox had turned in a finished screenplay, the production moved on without him. (A subsequent draft by Gen LeRoy, is bafflingly complex and involves several wizards, body-swapping, and, according to Solomon, a sequence where vultures and sharks are turned into an evil prince’s human henchmen.) Executives also rejected this take.
The producers next recruited Linda Woolverton, who had previously worked on Saturday morning cartoons like Ewoks and My Little Pony, to work on the screenplay. At the same time, a production team was being assembled. Richard Williams, the genius director of animation on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (his work was granted a special achievement Academy Award), was first offered the film, but Williams turned it down to continue toiling away on his passion project The Thief and the Cobbler. Williams recommended Richard and Jill Purdum, who were running a commercial studio in London. They accepted. And a small team of extremely talented animators, including Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Tom Sito, Hans Bacher, and Paul De Mayer, went to work on what would eventually be known as the “Purdum version” of Beauty and the Beast.
This was a very different version of Beauty and the Beast. For one, it wasn’t a musical. It was a somber, immaculately designed drama, although maybe drama is not the right word because this version would fluctuate wildly, oftentimes switching radically between tragedy and slapstick comedy. (And everything in between.) It was set in 1709. Animator Sito recounts in Tale As Old As Time that, thanks to the setting, “everything looked kind of dull.” In this version Maurice is a merchant sailor, his sister, Marguerite, is an oppressive force in the household. And Belle isn’t an only child; her young sister Clarice and her cat, Charley, join her. Gaston is a “foppish aristocrat” and, somewhat hauntingly, the enchanted objects have “neither faces nor voices.”
Of that core group of artists assembled to initiate production (studios in Glendale and Paris were going to be recruited to complete animation), most were unenthusiastic about this version. “There wasn’t a lot of personality,” Deja told Solomon. Richard Purdum flew to the newly opened Disney-MGM Studios in Florida and showed Peter Schneider, then-president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, the first twenty minutes of the movie. It didn’t go over well. It was suggested that the filmmakers involve Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the hit songwriting and storytelling team behind Ron Clements and John Musker’s The Little Mermaid. Schneider noted the movie’s similarities, both aesthetically and on a narrative level, with the Cocteau film. Schneider told Solomon: “It was very dark and didn’t feel much like a Disney animated movie.” Deja noted that, with the aunt character featuring so heavily, that it would have drawn unfair comparisons to Cinderella. Producer Don Hahn also made mention that in this version, Belle and the Beast didn’t meet until page 32 of a 75-page script.
Coming back from the disastrous Florida screening, Hahn announced that everything the team had worked on would be thrown out. But there was a silver lining: they would be granted a research trip to Paris. After the trip they didn’t go back to London; instead they returned to Los Angeles. Quietly, the artists were assigned to other projects. Hahn, Woolverton and the Purdums continued working on Beauty and the Beast, now with the help of Ashman and Menken. But Richard Purdum wasn’t happy with the way the production was headed;. In 1989, the Purdums left the project and a pair of relatively unproven directors, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, who had overseen the “Cranium Command” short film for Epcot, were assigned to take over Beauty and the Beast. Many of the creative principles involved in the original version, including Deja, Keane and Woolverton, remained on the film and contributed to its overwhelming success.
And the Purdum version finally saw the light of day, when that initial story reel (the one shown to executives in Florida) was released as part of a Beauty and the Beast Blu-ray in 2010. Watching the reel (introduced, on the special features, by Schneider), it’s easy to see why it was rejected: it really does feel overstuffed and far too indebted to Cinderella (especially with the overbearing, desperate aunt). There’s far too much emphasis placed on the family’s finances, the tone is erratic and the pacing is positively trying. But there are also some interesting elements, too: the antique music box that Belle cherishes, at one point imagined as a nonverbal character in the tradition of Tinker Bell, is an interesting visual conceit. It’s also fun to watch Gaston as a preening dandy (less fun: that Belle is a total non-character). And it’s fascinating to see how many things would make it into the final film, even though this was a version that was completely scrapped: the wolf chase, Gaston’s joke about being exhausted from waiting, the rose motif, the basics of the enchanted object characters and their eagerness to please.
Beauty and the Beast is one of those flawless masterpieces that feels effortless; like it came into the world fully formed and ready for our consumption. But, like every great work of art, it went through iterations and revisions and stretches where it traveled down a long, sometimes bumpy road. The “Purdum version” is a perfect example of the kind of thought processes, experimentation and dead-ends that you have to go through and explore before you create a bona fide classic. Quite frankly, it’s a tale as old as time.