Like the song goes, Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle was very different from the rest of her Disney Princess forbearers when the animated classic graced movie screens in 1991. A bookish and independent young woman from a rural village, Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara) stood in marked contrast to more glamorous royals like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
But according to Emily Zemler’s new book, Disney Princess: Beyond the Tiarasaid Beauty and the Beast animators — led by James Baxter and Mark Henn — originally envisioned a character who more closely resembled a glamorous member of Hollywood royalty.
“She kind of looked like Angelina Jolie — very beautiful,” O’Hara remarks in the book about the initial concept art for her alter ego. “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.”
For the record, it’s unlikely that Jolie was the direct inspiration for Belle. The Oscar-winning Girl Interrupted star was only a teenager when Beauty and the Beast was in production, and didn’t make her feature film debut until 1993’s Cyborg 2. In Zemler’s book, Baxter says that he and Henn initially envisioned Belle as being “more European-looking with fuller lips, [and] a little bit darker eyebrows” — characteristics that are certainly identified with Jolie. According to Beyond the Tiarathough, the celebrities that did serve as reference points for the animators included Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn and O’Hara herself.
“The animators created a lot of concept artwork and dozens of sketches to find the best fit,” Zemler confirms to Yahoo Entertainment via e-mail. “You can see in the sketches how much Belle evolved. Paige O’Hara recalled early versions of Belle looking like Angelina Jolie, but that is simply Paige’s perception. None of the animators I spoke with mentioned Jolie as an inspiration for Belle.”
Nor pre-production on Beauty and the Beast continued, Baxter and Henn eventually came to agree with their star that Belle had the potential to be a transformative Disney Princess and revised their image of her accordingly. “I knew this was going to change the view of Disney Princesses,” O’Hara says in the book. “Belle was the first one not looking for a man. She wanted to see the world and all the places she’d read about in books.”
Belle did ultimately change the face of Disney Princesses, directly impacting the way subsequent characters like Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan were written — not to mention drawn. “Belle opened the doors to who could be considered a Disney Princess even wider, welcoming a broader fanbase in with her,” Zemler says. “Every representation, both in character and in appearance, encouraged those making Aladdin to make Jasmine more adventurous and spirited. It had a ripple effect.”
That emphasis on spirit and adventure carried over into the live action adaptations of many classic Disney cartoons, including upcoming versions of The Little Mermaid and Snow White, starring Halle Bailey and Rachel Zegler, respectively. (Emma Watson played Belle in the 2017 film version of Beauty and the Beastbut the character has also been portrayed by a variety of diverse performers on stage and screen.)
“In 1937, the cartoon [Snow White and the Seven Dwarves] was so focused on her finding true love, and it’s not even in her mind at all in this film,” Zegler told Yahoo Entertainment at D23 last month. “Maybe she finds love. Maybe she finds friendship. But what’s really important is that she finds her own voice.”
For Zemler, Belle’s lasting legacy has less to do with her looks and more to do with her attitude. “I’ve always admired Belle’s spirit and her love of books,” the author says. “Sometimes we think of a classic princess as blond and perhaps somewhat shallow, but Belle undercuts those traditional cliches. She is a devoted daughter, a kind friend and she understands the world through reading books. In that way, she’s someone to whom a lot of us relate to or aspire to be.”
Beauty and the Beast is currently streaming on Disney+; Disney Princess: Beyond the Tiara is available now at most major booksellers, including Amazon.