Producer Don Hahn started work on the picture three and a half years ago. From the start, the filmmakers knew they didn't want Belle to be the passive character of the original story or a carbon copy of Ariel in "The Little Mermaid," a creation some critics found cloyingly sexist. With screenwriter Linda Woolverton--who brought to the character her own passion for reading--they devised a plot in which Belle would actively track down her father and bargain with the Beast for his life (in the original her father, under threat of death, trades her to Beast.)
But Woolverton had to start all over from scratch when Howard Ashman and Alan Menken ("Little Shop of Horrors," "The Little Mermaid") came aboard two years ago to transform "Beauty and the Beast" into a musical. Ashman, both the lyricist and the film's executive producer, in many ways became the driving force behind the movie. "He was a genius storyteller in knowing where to place songs, in knowing what's important and what's not," says Hahn. "Howard was our simplification police." It was Ashman who realized, contrary to tradition, that this had to be Beast's story. "We didn't agree with him right away. But he was right. The Beast was the guy with the problem."