It’s been 25 years since her voice first graced our cinema screens as Belle but Beauty and The Beast star Paige O’Hara is still immensely proud to have played the heroine who she believes paved the way for future Disney princesses interested in more than just hunting for a man to marry.
“In 1991 it had never been done before. It was just revolutionary because of the way the children responded and the young girls,” the actress says of Belle’s depiction as a book smart brown-eyed and brown-haired girl next door.
“I can’t tell you how many girls have said ‘oh you made me feel like it’s OK, it’s cool to be a geek, this is the first Disney Princess who looks like me just have brown hair and brown eyes’. It’s as if they identified with her.”
“She kind of paved the way then for the Mulans,” adds O’Hara, referencing the 1998 film about a young Chinese girl who poses as a man in order to fight in the army.
“I just love Mulan’s story. I just love her sacrifice and her strength,” the actress explains. “She’s the reason I took up kickboxing and martial arts.”
There was a very real chance that the door for the Mulans of the future might not have been opened in 1991, though, because Belle could have been quite a different princess.
“The original drawings I was really hoping they wouldn’t use, and they didn’t. The Belle they had drawn initially was so perfectly beautiful that it was almost off-putting because it would make you insecure. She’s almost too beautiful, you just want to look at her.”
“Whereas with Belle [the Belle we see on screen today] you can identify with her. She’s still pretty and everything.”
Does O’Hara believe we’ve come a long way since those early 90s days, then? Have Disney princesses become more representative of the young children who look up to them?
“Oh absolutely. And I love the fact that Frozen, the two heroes were the sisters. I grew up with two sisters and one of them passed away but my other sister is alive and I thought it was so special that they did that.”
With Pixar and digital animation now dominating children’s films, does O’Hara think the children of the noughties are missing out on the magic those of us who grew up with Ariel, Belle, Jasmine and Mulan came to expect from the hand-drawn film?
“They are great and all the other ones are great,” says O’Hara of the Pixar films, “but there’s just a dimension and a soul that I think is missing from them. But that also could be because I’m an artist. I want all those artists at Disney to have a job again.”
To celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Beauty and The Beast, head to the DisneyLife app for Beauty and the Beast movies, character worlds, special features, music, books, and more.