What a Beautiful Beast
The Beast drifts weightlessly to the ground, lowering with a slow and reverent stillness as the cocoon of his cape lashes in the wind, revealing the man inside. His muscled limbs relax as he comes to rest on the ground. This is one of the most important scenes in Disney's history and one that would confirm the studio's momentum and relevance as they began their "renaissance period." This scene is important not just because it personifies the prevailing of good over evil and the power of love to save this man from death; not because we finally get to see the man behind the mane, nor the menagerie of anthropomorphised servants regain their livelihood. This shot holds the collaborative input of the two creatives that changed the discourse of Disney, Howard Ashman and Glen Keane. Ashman was the musical director and lyricist and Keane the animator who bought Beast to life. Both Keane and Ashman did exactly what they were expected to do: they delivered a collaboration including both their respective geniuses. Keane did not just draw Beast as a man, he carved a mythic man from marble in each frame with the strokes of his pencil. Through music and lyrics, Ashman gave Beast his soul.1 I couldn't imagine a more perfect duo to herald Disney's renaissance. However, although the partnership of Ashman and Keane resulted in creative genius, their relationship is characterised by a silence and remarkable lack of public acknowledgement of each other. The duo whose work together heralded the Disney renaissance were, in effect, completely apart.
Glen Keane's path to Disney was not direct, seemingly occurring more through accident than intention. Keane rejected the offer to play American football on a college scholarship, instead applying for admission into the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), the incubator for many other noteworthy animators such as Tim Burton and John Lasseter, amongst others.2 The folio Keane submitted was intended for the School of Painting but was misplaced and ended up in consideration for Character Animation in the School of Film, where he was offered admission.3 After graduation from Character Animation, he received an animation job at Disney, working on The Rescuers (Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery and Art Stevens, 1977). Despite his success, Keane questioned his trajectory, at one time almost leaving Disney to move to a seminary.4
Ashman's path to Disney was much more straightforward. After establishing a career on stage in musical theatre, where he was best known for writing Little Shop of Horrors, Ashman entered Disney during the production of Oliver & Co (1988), earning a writing credit for the famed tune "Once Upon a Time in New York City." Disney were so pleased with his efforts they brought Ashman on board to steer the ship of The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements and John Musker, 1989). His efforts were catalysts for the hope and joy of the characters on screen and he wrote all of the lyrics in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1991) and made further contributions to Aladdin (Ron Clements and John Musker, 1992).
It is impossible to deny the collective genius of Keane and Ashman or the imprint it left. The magic they crafted with Ariel in The Little Mermaid earned them the opportunity to work together on Beauty and the Beast. However, despite the impressive results of their pairing, they were an unlikely duo and there is scarce documentation of their interactions. This may be due to the premeditated nature of animation film production where the script, songs and storyboards are decided well before any of the animating commences. Each department speaks to each other through their work as orchestrated by directors and producers. It would be easy to assume this function of the animation production pipeline to be reason why we rarely see Keane and Ashman in the same room or even the same conversation, but each creative individual and department reminisces their affinity with these characters and productions in a way that would seem like they were all in it together.
Ashman became aware he had AIDS midway through the production of The Little Mermaid and he was open about it with those around him. Ashman lived in New York during the production of Beauty and the Beast and would often engage with the production via phone call or other distanced correspondence, most likely due to his need for medical attention.5 The transformation scene was one of the last Keane drew in production. On March 14, 1991 Howard Ashman died of AIDS-related illness. Just a few days before this, Disney threw a preview show for Beauty and the Beast for the New York press, showing animated scenes, drawings and performances of some songs. The film was met with praise and cheers by all of those in the room. Moments after the press show finished, the Disney heads raced to Howard's hospital bed to share the good news. He lay cocooned in his sheets wearing a Beauty and the Beast sweatshirt, frail and gaunt. Days later he passed away. He was only 41. In September 1991, Beauty and the Beast screened for the first time to the public during the 28th New York Film Festival. The animation was yet to be finished, with some scenes as rough pencil tests, others barely coloured, but the majority of scenes were complete and the film was a great success.6
In interviews, Keane says that faith is incredibly important as a structure to help him understand better the "bigger" questions in life. Many interviews focus on his faith and he has often talked about Catholicism, God, Jesus and being guided by a greater power. Keane practiced his faith regularly and publicly, being part of a bible group at the Disney campus and spending time with other members of the animation department reading the Bible together. After working on Beauty and the Beast, Keane would go on to produce a series of children's books based on a character called Adam Raccoon that encouraged Christian principles, published by Green Egg Media, a Christian publishing house.7 Maybe this is the subtext to their interaction which could provide reason for the lack of involvement with each other beyond their convergent creative practices.
Keane would rally for the opportunity to work on The Little Mermaid, almost begging to do Ariel, drawn by the mermaid's mystic beauty and Jodi Benson's vocal performance,8 but he never mentioned being involved with Ashman. Even though Keane admits that his favourite character to animate was in fact Ariel and that he prefers animated films with songs in them (versus not having any songs),9 I am still yet to hear him talk directly about Ashman. Similarly, in the archival footage and interviews that recollect the life that Ashman lived, there is no mention of Keane either. Despite the evidence of the collaboration of their genius, it seems that neither had much to do or say with each other – whether this was virtue of animation production process or something greater. This causes me to question if their completely divergent lives and potentially conflicting cultural and religious ideologies kept these two greats apart in person? How could this frontrunning duo, who laid the foundation for Disney's renaissance period which facilitated its growth into the twenty-first century and made Disney what it is today, be so removed from each other, yet unified in the end product? Why do neither of them talk about each other? As the Beast inhaled his first breath after his transformative coma, Ashman exhaled his last. If Ashman were with us, I wonder what he would have to say? What I would say to him is – thank you.