Apr 13, 2011

The Beast's Love of Architecture

Watching Disney films after a long while feels like catching up with a really good old friend. You always pick up where you left. It always feels like the last time was only yesterday. Nathaniel’s choice for this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot fills me with joy as it made me catch up with a film I boundlessly loved as a kid, but hadn’t seen in precisely eight years: Beauty and the Beast. The film is packed with some of the greatest music that Disney ever produced and with such a memorable array of characters, from the two protagonists all the way down to every supporting character. Beauty and the Beast is a staple of my childhood along with 101 Dalmatians. I used to watch them every day. EVERY SINGLE DAY! Needless to say, so many images from this film were etched in my mind so for the first time, I knew which shot I was going to write about the minute Nathaniel announced the film for this episode.

You see, as a civil engineer and (crossing my fingers) prospective architecture student, buildings are the only thing more prominent than film and food in my life. The signs of this interest in structures were probably evident from those early days, since the images I remembered most vividly are those of the beast’s castle. On the film’s part, there’s no shortage of direct or indirect references to architecture. I don’t think any other Disney film relies so heavily on the atmosphere it creates purely through architecture.

The first use of the castle in telling the story is the early juxtaposition of the dark and light sides in the shot above from the opening scene. Before we even get a glimpse of the prince as the beast, we already expect a drastic change of appearance based on what we’ve seen happen to the castle. But that shot is just the first of many, where the animators convey meaning and feeling through architecture.

Later in the film, when Maurice, Belle’s father, enters Beast’s castle for the first time, the filmmakers get so much mileage from the castle’s heightened gothic towers and the haunting figures in the interior to show his solitude and helplessness in this foreign house (just as they do when Belle walks into the forbidden west wing a few minutes later).

Or look at how masterfully they use the architecture of the lustrous library to intensify the Beast’s effort in stealing Belle’s heart. Or the famous dance scene to the enchanting tune of Beauty andthe Beast, with the (animated) camera pan across the ballroom. The majestic stairs, the impeccably decorated dining room, and the ballroom with its gold-hued walls and illustrious chandelier are no less exquisite than Belle’s gown.

This emphasis on the castle’s design isn’t even limited to the imagery. The filmmakers, who had an obvious knack for architecture, go one step further to openly talk about their creation. But without sounding too sophisticated or out-of-place for a children’s film, they play the scene so casually that it makes for one of the film’s funniest and most heart-warming moments. In the scene, as Cogsworth and Lumiere give Belle a tour of the castle, Cogsworth points out:

“As you can see, the pseudo-facade was stripped away to reveal a minimalist rococo design. Note the unusual inverted vaulted ceilings. This is yet another example of the neo-classic baroque period. And as I always say, if it’s not baroque, don’t fix it. Ahhaahaa haha.”

Finally, my favourite shot in the film – at which I remember cheering every time it played – comes in the finale, during Beast’s transformation into the prince charming. Obviously, a film that mingles with architecture throughout doesn’t restrict itself by showing only the beast and his servants, but gives us a beautiful shot of the castle’s transformation as well. Here, as the golden raindrops fall on the castle, the dark gothic grotesques change shape into the white innocent saints.

How charming...

Is there another Disney movie I don’t know of that so intimately concerns itself with architecture? Have you seen Beauty and the Beast recently? Do you think Disney has made a better film than this one? This one’s quite hard to top!


  1. Good choice. I always got a kick out of that gargoyle transformation too. Just the right touch.

  2. I also love Beast's castle. As for the architectural joke I always thought it was a word play between baroque and broke, hence the line "if it's not baroque/broke, don't fix it. A very entertaining read.

  3. A) The ballroom scene looks so digital but so good, b) I love how Lumiere/the watch guy was talking out of his ass while touring Belle, the styles he was mentioning were at least a century later than the actual style of the palace and c) I was equally addicted to 101.

  4. yeah
    in his description of the house, other than the vaulted ceilings which are actually shown in the beastly version of the castle, not much else makes sense.
    but as i said, he's just so funny.
    the baroque joke is so silly, its my favourite part of the film.

  5. I guess only Sleeping Beauty compares to this one in terms of pure unabashed love of design and architecture. Nice post!

  6. You forgot to mention the French parterre gardens!

  7. As somone who hopes to become an architect myself, I always had a similar connection to this film. To the comments, I'm not sure Cogsworth was actually wrong. The story is clearly set in medieval times, but the castle seems to be an anachronistic baroque melange of gothic and classicizing features. For example, the gothic silhouette is paired with classical details like balustrades, arcades, urns, columns, marble floors, and ceiling painting, and the ornate wall panelling and furnishing verge on the decadence of Rococo interiors. I've also read somewhere that much of the castle was inspired by Chambord.

  8. I've also loved the architecture in this film, especially the early shots where the castle really promotes the whole gothic look. Though one thing that always sort of annoyed me was the size difference: in the beginning, when Belle first arrives, the castle is HUGE, but from the scene where she and the Beast are descending the staircase and Mrs. Potts begins to sing, it feels like the castle shrank like it's not as big as originally conceived. Still, that could just be a way for the filmmakers to portray Belle's familiarity to the castle and everyone in it as time has passed.