Beauty and the Beast (United States, 1991)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Beauty and the Beast Poster

Walt Disney's 1991 instant classic, Beauty and the Beast, is not only the finest animated movie ever made, but deserves a prominent position on any list of all-time greats. Although not the highest grossing Disney production, nor the best-remembered by most kids (those honors go to The Lion King), Beauty and the Beast nevertheless earned the most enthusiastic notices ever by the critics and was recognized with a Best Picture Oscar nomination (considering the weak competition, it deserved to win the award). The studio knew early in development that it had a winner. In an unprecedented move, Disney screened a 70% complete work print to a packed auditorium at the 1991 New York Film Festival months before the movie was finished. The astounding reception helped to build a sense of anticipation that was unrivaled since the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

"Irresistible" is an apt description of this film, because every frame is imbued with a magic that is rare for any motion picture, animated or otherwise. In the past, I have been known to criticize Disney from time-to-time, but not on this occasion. Beauty and the Beast is a triumph of artistry ? a rare movie where all of the elements gel perfectly. It has set the standard for today's animated motion picture, improving upon The Little Mermaid and establishing a level that no subsequent animated film has equaled.

The tale told by Beauty and the Beast is an old one, dating back centuries prior to the version penned by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, upon which screenwriter Linda Woolverton based this script. Understandably, the people at Disney have added their own spin by changing certain plot details, modernizing Belle's character (she's a feminist), and adding a gallery of talking objects. In the Beast's ensorcelled castle, everything has a voice: candlesticks, clocks, pots, cups, wardrobes, and feather dusters. The film makers obviously took their inspiration for this from Jean Cocteau's classic 1946 adaptation, where, although the objects in the castle did not sing or frolic, there was a pervasive sense of enchantment. Watch that film, then watch this one -- the stylistic similarities, especially in the look and feel of the castle, are impossible to miss.

Belle (voice of Paige O'Hara) is the most beautiful girl in a provincial town in France. Unfortunately for those who might want her as a wife, including the dim, narcissistic Gaston (Richard White), she's also one of the village's oddest denizens. She keeps to herself, helping her inventor father, Maurice (Rex Everhart), with his contraptions, and, in her spare time, devouring books. She has read just about everything available in the town, and eagerly awaits the arrival of anything new. Every time she ventures outdoors, she draws stares and snickers, but, despite her strangeness, Gaston is determined to marry her.

Then, one fateful day, her father disappears in the forest. Belle goes searching for him and stumbles upon a dark and scary castle. Venturing inside, she discovers a gallery of magical creatures ? regular household objects that speak and move. There's Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), a candlestick with impeccable manners and an voice that recalls Maurice Chevalier; Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), a clock with a high impression of himself and his role in the castle; Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury), a grandmotherly tea pot; and many others. Then there's the Beast (Robby Benson), the terrifying creature who rules over this domain and holds Maurice captive. Once a handsome prince, he has been cursed to remain a beast until he finds someone who truly loves him in spite of his appearance. Now, he is filled with equal parts hope and dread at Belle's arrival -- hope that she might be "the one" to break the spell, and dread that she might be repulsed by his ugliness. Nevertheless, he agrees to release her father if she accedes to being his permanent guest. She makes the bargain, Maurice is set free, and she is trapped. In time, however, Belle discovers that life in the castle is not as dreadful as it initially seems.

As a romance, Beauty and the Beast is a delightful confection, creating a pair of memorable, three-dimensional characters and giving us reason to root for their union. Belle is strong-willed, independent, and smart. The animators have taken pains to make her features more flexible than those of any previous Disney heroine, and her face displays a wide range of expressions: anger, concern, contempt, contrition, fear, joy, sadness, sarcasm, skepticism, and wonder. The Beast, despite his frightening appearance, isn't as terrible as he first appears. Inside of him beats the heart of a true hero, and, in an act of self-sacrifice when he risks his life for Belle, he displays his true nature.

The real allure of the movie, however, is twofold: the amazingly-detailed animation and a half- dozen spectacular song-and-dance numbers. Of all Disney's "new wave" animated features, this is the most polished-looking. Although Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame all have their share of eye-popping moments, none are as consistently impressive as those in Beauty and the Beast. The ballroom sequence, which mixes computer- generated backgrounds with hand-drawn characters, is the best scene in the movie, but it is nearly equaled by a handful of others. And, while the camera in most animated films remains largely static, here it's frequently on the move, soaring and zooming as it circles characters and imitates tracking shots. Visually, Beauty and the Beast is so carefully-constructed that repeated viewings reveal new details, like the wayward strands of hair that fall across Belle's forehead.

The production numbers, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman (the duo who worked on The Little Mermaid), represent the best in Disney's considerable arsenal. They're the animated equivalent of Broadway show-stoppers, with all the energy and audacity of something choreographed by Busby Berkeley. There's "Belle", the opening number; "Gaston", the tongue-in-cheek villain's theme; "Be Our Guest", with singing and dancing china and utensils; the playful "Something There"; the warlike "Mob Song"; and the memorable title ballad, "Beauty and the Beast".

As was the case in The Little Mermaid, the vocal characterizations are flawless. While many of the actors in this film are better-known than those in Mermaid, the performers' immersion in their roles is such that, unlike Demi Moore in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, their alter egos efface any baggage associated with our recognition of their names. Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and Angela Lansbury are all solid in their respective roles. Robby Benson, a surprising choice for the Beast, is excellent. And Paige O'Hara, a relatively unknown newcomer, gives voice and personality to Belle.

Beauty and the Beast also has a keen sense of film history. In addition to the already- mentioned debt it owes to Cocteau's classic, the movie pays homage to at least three legendary motion pictures. The opening shots of the Beast's gothic castle recall Citizen Kane. A scene of Belle racing across a grassy hill overlooking her village while singing the reprise of "Belle" echoes a similar moment with Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. And the march of Gaston's enflamed mob towards the Beast's castle is reminiscent of Frankenstein's finale.

Combining all of these diverse elements, Beauty and the Beast attains a nearly-perfect mix of romance, music, invention, and animation. While many animated features claim to appeal equally to adults and children, Beauty and the Beast is one of the rare ones that actually achieves that lofty goal. It's a family feature that someone over the age of 18 can venture into without an accompanying child. To Disney, for Beauty and the Beast, I offer my most sincere thanks. If they could once again come close to this level of mastery, movie-going audiences across the world would be forever grateful.

Thoughts on the 2002 Special Edition:: Once upon a time, Disney could re-open its animated classics into theaters on a regular basis and, as a result, was guaranteed an ongoing income stream. The advent of video, while allowing the studio to realize millions of dollars of sales for VHS tapes and DVDs, has dried up the theatrical repeat source of revenue. So, in order to derive a little more money from Beauty and the Beast, Disney is re-releasing it as a "Special Edition" more than 10 years after it initially reached screens. The Special Edition boats two elements that the original (and any current home video editions) lacked: six minutes of added scenes and a print that has been cleaned-up and enlarged to play on IMAX screens.

The new material includes a little extra dialogue (principally Belle reading to the Beast from "Romeo and Juliet") and one new song: "Human Again" (performed by Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and a host of magical housewares). The history behind the song is interesting. It was originally penned by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken for the movie, then scrapped before Beauty and the Beast went into production. It was revived for the "Beauty and the Beast" Broadway musical and became so popular with audiences that Disney decided to bring back the animated cast, record the song, and animate it. The production team has done an excellent job incorporating the additional material into the film - it looks and sounds like it was there from the beginning.

As nice as the new material may be, the real benefit of going to a theater to see the Special Edition is to experience it on a four-story tall IMAX screen. (Disney pioneered the application of IMAX for a feature-length animated film with Fantasia 2000.) Never has Beauty and the Beast been so grand. Both the soundtrack and print have been restored to pristine condition, and seeing and hearing the movie in the IMAX setting has to rank near the top of my recent theatrical experiences. Disney plans to release Beauty and the Beast: The Special Edition on DVD near the end of 2002, but watching this movie in even the best home theater will not come close to approximating the IMAX experience. So, for anyone with a love of this movie, a trip to the nearest large screen theater is a must.

Thoughts on the 2012 3-D version: Let me begin by making it clear that the 3-D "enhancements" to Beauty and the Beast do not in any way damage the viewing experience. They have been executed with care. Light levels and colors have been corrected so the picture does not appear muddy or dim. In short, this is not an abomination. It is a perfectly acceptable way to see the movie. However, while it is true that adding 3-D to Beauty and the Beast does not hurt it, neither does it in any way make it "superior" or "definitive." This is an inherently unnatural way to view the movie. It was never designed for 3-D and the changes end up as cosmetic. One does not need 3-D to appreciate the showmanship of "Be Our Guest" and, if anything, it diminishes the romance and emotion of the ballroom dance. Why bother?

The answer is, of course, money. Traditionally (at least before the home video era), Disney animated films were re-released theatrically every 7-10 years. Beauty and the Beast has continued this tradition after a fashion. It opened in late 1991, was re-released in an IMAX-only "Special Edition" on January 1, 2002 (with a new song, "Human Again," added), and is now being released in 3-D (using the 2002 extended content but with 3-D applied). As with The Lion King, the lure is not so much the 3-D as it is a chance to see one of the most beloved Disney animated films in a movie theater. However, for the benefit of being able to wear uncomfortable plastic glasses for 90 minutes, viewers are subjected to a $3 (or, in some locales, $4) surcharge.

Ultimately, the 3-D is a wash and I wish Disney had simply re-released Beauty and the Beast with a 2-D option. There's a saying that goes something like this: Just because a thing can be done does not mean it should be done. That applies here. Still, if you want to experience the movie again in a theater, or share it with someone who may not have been around in 1991, this is an excellent opportunity. It's just as magical as it ever was and nothing about it seems dated (unless one considers the concept of hand-drawn animation to be "dated"). Just remember there's no 2-D theatrical option. It would be easier to trumpet this version if the 3-D added something tangible to the experience.

As for the future, while I'm sure Disney will move on from here to Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, the real question is whether they will have the gumption to touch their most prized possession: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. That's something to ponder.

Beauty and the Beast (United States, 1991)

Director: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Cast: (voices) Paige O'Hara, Robby Benson, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton
Music: Alan Menken, Howard Ashman
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Ranked #58 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:24
U.S. Release Date: 1991-11-22
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1