Character design is a delicate art, and for a company like Disney it can make or break not just a film, but the company’s reputation too. Back in 1991, the filmmaker had a lot riding on Beauty and the Beast, an animated musical that would revitalize its output with the first Disney heroine who did not dream of marrying a prince. But it seems that Belle could have looked very different from the character we know.
According to details revealed in a new book, Belle originally “kind of looked like Angelina Jolie” until animated decided that she was too glamorous and changed their designs. If you need to catch up on Disney’s latest releases, sign up for Disney Plus. But in the meantime, this is what we’ve learned about Belle from Beauty and the Beast.
Based on an 18th century fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast tells the story of Belle, a beautiful young woman with a taste for adventure who has to swap her freedom to save her father before finally falling for her Jailer, the Beast. But apparently in the original concept art for the character, Belle was just a little too beautiful.
In Emily Zemler’s new book Disney Princess: Beyond the Tiara: The Stories, the Influence, the Legacy (available at amazon (opens in new tab)), Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle, says her character originally looked very different. The concept created by animators including James Baxter and Mark Henn showed Belle as a glamorous woman “with fuller lips, a little bit darker eyebrows, and slightly smaller eyes” than Ariel from 1989’s The Little Mermaid.
Early sketches by Alyson Hamilton that are included in the book show Belle wearing a pink dress, with darker, curled hair tied up and soft makeup. But apparently, there was a concern that viewers wouldn’t be able to relate to the character. “She kind of looked like Angelina Jolie – very beautiful,” O’Hara says. “I didn’t see how anybody would identify with that person. You’d look at her and put her on a pedestal. Mark and James changed the look of her. She was a little too perfect.”
Jolie hadn’t become famous at the time, so we’re assuming this to be a modern day comparison looking back at the design. It might seem surprising since by definition Belle was intended to be beautiful, and with her enormous eyes and flawless skin, she looks every bit the Disney princess. The film even opens with her Ella looks being admired by everyone in her village Ella in the song Belle. However, Belle is presented as more girl-next-door beautiful than the glam look that O’Hara describes, and as a bit of an eccentric, too – she likes books of all things!
According to the book, the final version of Belle was inspired by Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood whose images hung on the wall on a board of celebrity photos while animators worked. O’Hara herself was also apparently an influence.
While we’d be intrigued to see how the current Angelina Jolie would work as Belle, we think Disney made the right decision. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, Beauty and the Beast immediately became a classic on release, winning the hearts of both adults and children. It grossed $440 million in box office sales and spearheaded Disney’s renaissance. And when the live action version came out in 2017, Disney plumped not for Angelina Jolie but the much more down-to-earth Emma Watson.
O’Hara’s revelations offer a fascinating insight into some of the thinking and process that goes on behind successful character design. If you’re looking for help with your own work, see our top character design tips. And for things to be careful of if you want to avoid upsetting people, see our roundup of the most controversial character redesigns.