‘Beauty and the Beast’: 3 book-lover geek-out moments with the voice of Belle
A quarter-century ago, Disney gave book-lovers a leading lady they could really relate to. Belle became an immediate favorite for any girl who, like Belle, would rather have her nose stuck in a book than doing just about anything else.
Beauty and the Beast is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a new home video release of the film. On that edition, there are over five hours of bonus materials from previous releases and a handful of new featurettes — including a couple that the folks who are bookworm Disney fans will particularly enjoy. One featurette spotlights Walt Disney’s two-month trip to Europe in 1935, where he bought 335 books; many of them are those tales as old as time: fairy tale collections that are still in Disney’s archives and that inspired later Disney films.
In another featurette, called “Menken & Friends: 25 Years of Musical Inspiration,” Beauty and the Beast’s legendary composer Alan Menken gathers with other Disney songwriters — including Moana and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, who totally geeks out over the moment in the song “Belle” when she’s reading her book to the sheep.
Beyond these featurettes, I had plenty to nerd out over when I drove up to Disney’s Burbank studio lot to chat with the voice of Belle, Paige O’Hara, who is also a self-declared lover of books.
Paige O’Hara photographed on September 9, 2016 in Disney Archives’ research room, with an animator’s desk used during production on Beauty and the Beast. Photo credit: Disney
Read on for three moments from my conversation with O’Hara, where we got to gab about books and Belle:
Her favorite books: When I asked O’Hara what some of her favorite books are, her immediate answer was “The Bible.” As for what novel she returns to again and again, it’s not one with daring swordfights, magic spells, or a prince in disguise. Rather, it’s got a plucky six-year-old and a caring attorney father: To Kill a Mockingbird. She also has a fondness for her art books. As a fan of Romanticist painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, O’Hara has several books about him that feature his art. (And when she learned to paint — you can see her work here — she would copy Turner’s watercolors.)
She’s also gotten really into Maximum Ride, James Patterson’s YA fantasy series about avian-human hybrid children who escape from the lab where they were raised in cages. Like any passionate book fan, O’Hara gets emotional when it comes time to say goodbye to a favorite series: “The final one — and I'm mourning over it!” she said, pounding the wood coffee table in front of her, “— the final one came out last year. [Patterson] says he's not doing any more.” (The prolific author had said the prior book, Nevermore, was going to be the last one too, though, so there’s hope, Belle!)
The Little Woman in her: Beauty and the Beast screenwriter Linda Woolverton has said she drew inspiration for Disney’s Belle from Jo March, specifically from Katherine Hepburn’s performance in the 1933 Little Women film, and O'Hara has a fondness for the character as well. “I love Little Women, and there's a lot of me in that character,” she said.
Mark Henn, the lead animator for Belle, who joined my interview with O’Hara, then put the question to us: “Which version is your favorite though? Kate Hepburn or June Allyson?” After the briefest pause in thought, O’Hara said, “Kate Hepburn. Definitely.” I had to pipe in and declare my adoration for Winona Ryder’s Jo March, though. “Oh yeah, Winona Ryder’s great,” Henn said. It’s Hepburn all the way for O’Hara though, who dramatically quoted Hepburn’s iconic line from Stage Door: “The calla lilies are in bloom again.”
Image credit: Disney
Her memories of recording the iconic library scene: Oh, how many bookworms have sighed and salivated over that massive, gorgeous library? Of the sweet scene when the Beast gifts Belle his castle’s collection of books, O’Hara recalled, “That was one of the quickest scenes I recorded because I love books, so all I had to imagine was that my husband gave me that library.” Henn referenced the voice actress’ expressions of awe when he animated that scene, and luckily for fans, some of that footage taken of the cast during recording sessions is now available to the public — for the first time ever — in a featurette on the 25th anniversary Blu-ray and Digital HD (you can watch some of that below).
During our interview, O’Hara perfectly re-enacted Belle’s slightly suspicious eyebrow raise as the Beast tells her to close her eyes before showing her the library: “She’s, like, giving this look, ‘Really? Oh really.’ I love that moment. And when she goes, ‘Can I open them now,’ that’s when Belle becomes like a little kid in that moment.” She added, with a laugh, “Actually, that is a Paige face, that is a Paige eyebrow. I still do that with my husband, and [Henn] nailed it. My sister started laughing again when she saw that.”
Of working with footage of O’Hara and Sherri Stoner (the reference model for both Belle and Ariel), Henn had this to say: “As an animator, it’s really fun to watch and look for the subtle nuances and the little mannerisms, little things that the actors bring to the characters whether they realize it or not. We can take those and use them as tools that help make these characters more believable.”
Beauty and the Beast’s 25th anniversary edition is now out on on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere and on Blu-ray and DVD.