As the song goes, Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle was very different from the rest of her Disney Princess ancestors when the cartoon classic hit theaters in 1991. Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara) was a bookish and independent young woman from a rural village and contrasted sharply with more glamorous royals such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
But according to Emily Zemler’s new book, Disney Princess: Beyond the Tiarathe Beauty and the Beast animators – led by James Baxter and Mark Henn – originally envisioned a character more like a glamorous member of the Hollywood royalty.
“She looked a bit like Angelina Jolie – very beautiful,” O’Hara notes in the book about the first concept art for her alter ego. “I didn’t see how anyone would identify with that person. You would 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 just a teenager then Beauty and the Beast was in production and did not make her feature film debut until 1993 Cyborg 2. In Zemler’s book, Baxter says he and Henn initially envisioned Belle as “more European-looking with fuller lips, [and] slightly dark eyebrows” – characteristics that are definitely identified with Jolie. According to Beyond the tiarathough, the celebrities who served as a reference point for the animators included Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn, and O’Hara herself.
“The animators did a lot of concept illustrations and dozens of sketches to find the best fit,” Zemler confirmed via email to Yahoo Entertainment. “You can tell from the sketches how much Belle evolved. Paige O’Hara remembered early versions of Belle that looked like Angelina Jolie, but that’s just Paige’s perception. None of the animators I spoke to mentioned Jolie as inspiration for Belle.”
As pre-production on Beauty and the Beast Baxter and Henn eventually continued with their star that Belle had the potential to be a transforming Disney princess and revise their image of her accordingly. “I knew this would change the view of Disney princesses,” O’Hara says in the book. “Belle was the first not to look for a man. She wanted to see the world and all the places she’d read about in books.’
Belle eventually changed the face of Disney princesses, which had a direct influence on the way subsequent characters like Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan were written — not to mention drawn. “Belle opened the doors to those who could be considered even wider as a Disney princess, and welcomed a wider fan base to her,” says Zemler. “Her depiction, both in character and appearance, encouraged those who aladdin to make Jasmine more adventurous and spicy. It had a ripple effect.”
That emphasis on spirit and adventure was carried through in the live-action adaptations of many classic Disney cartoons, including upcoming versions of The little Mermaid and snow white, with 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 played by a variety of diverse performers on stage and on screen.)
“In 1937, the cartoon [Snow White and the Seven Dwarves] was so focused on finding true love, and it’s not even on her mind in this movie,” Zegler told Yahoo Entertainment at D23 last month. “Maybe she’ll find love. Maybe she will find 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,” says the author. “Sometimes we think of a classic princess as blonde and maybe a bit superficial, but Belle undermines those traditional clichés. She is a devoted daughter, a friendly friend and she understands the world through reading books. In that way she is someone to whom many of us relate to or aspire to be.”
Beauty and the Beast is currently streaming on Disney+; Disney Princess: Beyond the Tiara is now available from most major booksellers, including Amazon.