Our reviews of Beauty and the Beast (1946) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published July 13th, 2011) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) (Blu-ray) (published September 27th, 2010) are also available.
"Here's where she meets Prince Charming. But she won't discover that it's him 'til Chapter Three."—Belle (Paige O'Hara)
Once upon a time, there was a handsome prince beloved by all in his kingdom. But the prince was haughty, and after a time he became like a predator, wrecking his very castle and treating his servants like decorative objects.
But enough about Michael Eisner. Let's talk about Beauty and the Beast, newly minted in the second of Disney's "Platinum Edition" DVD packages.
The traditional Disney tale, like many of Hollywood's literary adaptations, begins with a storybook. The cover opens, and we enter the pages, embracing that world and whatever rules it obeys without question. When the Gopher in Disney's Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh announces, "I'm not in the book!" it is a reminder that we are immersed in a text. Rarely are Disney fairy-tale heroes aware of the rules of the game. Snow White longs for her prince to come, or the dwarfs mourn over her coffin, completely oblivious to the fact that everyone in the audience knows exactly how this is going to all turn out: that she is destined for a happy ending. Virtue is rewarded and villainy, punished. It is a tale as old as time…
Beauty and the Beast does not begin with a storybook, but with stained glass. Actually, it really begins with a shot of a forest, and birds borrowed from Bambi. The film closes with a dance borrowed from Cinderella. Plagiarism? Only if Beauty and the Beast plays by the traditional rules of the Disney fairy-tale, blissfully going through the motions. On the surface, everything seems routine. We have our heroine, Belle (Paige O'Hara), too beautiful and clever for the backwater burg in which her addled inventor father (Rex Everhart) has set up shop. Brushing off the advances of local übermensch Gaston (Richard White), she finds herself in the paws of the menacing Beast (Robbie Benson), who, of course, turns out to have a heart of gold. Moral lesson of the day: beauty is only skin deep. Good guys triumph and bad guys go tumbling to their deaths. Everything plays out as it should.
But from the very beginning, Belle reminds us that we are in a story, as she lays out the rules in song, putting down one storybook and picking up another. She has read this story before and longs to live in it. Of course, she will, as we discover when Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury) sings the famous setpiece to the film, while Belle and the Beast dance: "Tale as old as time/Song as old as rhyme/Beauty and the Beast." She is not singing to them; she is singing about them, reminding the audience that we are watching a narrative, a fable in which the characters seem aware, even dimly, that there is a story going on. They are surrounded by storytelling. The Beast gifts Belle with a fantastic library. Gaston puffs himself up with storytelling: bragging to his friends (the brilliantly acerbic "Gaston") and working up the crowd with his visions of the Beast's rampage ("The Mob Song," AKA "Kill the Beast")—he is a prime example of bad storytelling. In the marvelous new section of the film, we discover not only that the anthropomorphic objects tell themselves stories about their human lives ("Human Again") but that the Beast is illiterate. Our hero does not know yet how to tell stories (he can barely even sing!) and must be drawn into the world of language in order to be redeemed (including the words of love that must be uttered openly for the spell to be broken).
Released in 1991 and marking the turning point for the post-Walt Disney renaissance under the Eisner regime, Beauty and the Beast still remains one of Disney's landmark animated productions. Taking a cue from Broadway, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman fashioned the story in the mold of light opera. For instance, the opening song, "Belle," not only delineates the main character's desires ("I want much more than this provincial life") but develops setting (the townspeople, whose daily business forms the rhythm of the piece) and interpersonal conflict (Gaston wrestling his way through the crowd, and into the song, in order to announce his intentions to marry Belle). The characters take on a level of complexity rare in the animated fairy tale. Belle is intelligent, restless, and must learn to reconcile her fantasies with the difficulties of a real relationship with the volatile Beast. The Beast himself ranges between self-doubt and defiant anger, resistant to sharing his secrets at first or to play the "male hero" role the story has slated for him.
And then there is Gaston. At first he appears as a boastful buffoon, like a Captain Hook or Cruella De Vil, easily thwarted by his own ego. But it soon becomes clear that his predatory nature can easily tip over the edge into genuine violence. Gaston is every roid-raging jock who looks comical off the field but turns into a monster in his preferred element. His menace is more human, and thus more dangerous, than all the Ursulas and Maleficents whose threat can be easily contained within the pages of the storybook. Gaston is the real beast of the picture because he is all too human.
But for all the psychodrama underlying Beauty and the Beast, this is still an animated Disney musical. It has all the requisite comedy relief, mostly provided by the bickering between the stuffy clock Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers) and the scene-stealing Lumiere (Jerry Orbach, light years away from Lenny Briscoe in Law and Order), and the memorable songs. Disney makes fine use of the 5.1 soundtrack to punch up the orchestral splendor. In addition, the film has been restored and recolored, the colors popping out like this was a direct-to-video sequel and not the theatrical release itself. Since the film was originally colored by computer, it is easy for Disney to restore the print to a virtually flawless state, although this may be a case where a little age and softness would have given the film a certain dignity. It might seem odd to complain about a film that appears too good to be true, but there you are.
Disc One of this two-disc "Platinum Edition" features three versions of the film. Of course, the original cut is there (Lucas and Spielberg take note—you can make a special edition and still keep the original available), as well as the new expanded version developed for IMAX format last year (although presented here in its correct 1.85:1 ratio). The additional material consists primarily of a song cut from the original lineup, but which turned out to be a hit in the Broadway stage version: "Human Again." The new animation appears seamless, and the song makes the segue between the protagonists' first hints of love and their romantic dance number more sensible given the film's time frame. The sequence also adds a plot element from the Broadway version: the Beast's illiteracy, which fits nicely with the storytelling theme noted earlier and provides additional character development.
The third version included here is the notorious "Work in Progress" print screened at the New York Film Festival mere months before the film's completion. Producer Don Hahn and directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale agreed to screen Beauty and the Beast while a third of the film was still incomplete. Filling in the gaps with pencil tests and storyboards (and replacing sections of some finished sequences with this material as well), the film still remains oddly compelling, especially in its stark black and white prologue. Overall, the effect of this version is much like flipping through the angle feature on a production demonstration in a more traditional DVD supplemental section, only far more interesting.
Hahn, Wise, and Trousdale (with some input from Alan Menken) relate the story behind the film's rushed production (only two years, half the length of most major Disney animated projects), including their surprise at the warm reception for the "Work in Progress" version, on a commentary track playable over the "Special Edition" version of the film. The creators give a lot of credit to the much-missed Howard Ashman not just for his clever lyrics, but for story ideas and the overall Broadway approach to the film. They tell jokes and do tricks (with their fellow cand…uh, filmmakers). Taking a cue from Pixar's hilarious commentaries, they point out continuity errors in the film (look for where they identify artistic changes made to fit "Human Again" into the story) and tell lots of great stories. Did Regis Philbin really read for the part of the Beast? Was Mrs. Potts almost called Mrs. Chamomile? Ultimately, it does not really matter. This is a fine and entertaining commentary track. Disney rounds out the extras on Disc One with alternate larger "sing-along" subtitles and a brief game where you can obtain the secret code for the "West Wing" section of Disc Two (or you can just look the code up in the booklet).
Disc Two tries to follow the pattern established by the marvelous Snow White set which inaugurated Disney's Platinum Edition line. The "Library" is hosted by Cogsworth and Lumiere and offers a collection of featurettes on the making of the film that you can watch together (as a 50-minute documentary) or broken down by subject with additional material. For instance, a segment on "Story" is accompanied by an early pencil version of "Be Our Guest" (sung to Maurice in the first act, later moved to Belle in the second act) and a demo track of "Human Again" with introduction by Don Hahn. The "Music" section features a deleted musical cue by Alan Menken and the same demo track of "Human Again," this time introduced by Alan Menken.
That small detail sums up what is both right and wrong about this Platinum Edition. While Disney includes plenty of background material on Beauty and the Beast from conception to animation to awards (and even a brief look at the Broadway stage version), there is a degree of redundancy on this disc that suggests there are times when Disney is just padding. For instance, the Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson rendition of "Beauty and the Beast" is bad enough once, but it is included in both the "Library" and the "Den" sections of the disc. But at least that version of the song is not as awful as the Jump 5 version in the "Kitchen" section. Jump 5, which consists near as I can tell of blonde boys and girls evidently cloned from Britney Spears, is yet another in a long line of indistinguishable Radio Disney acts, cut in the mold of disposable Japanese pop groups, aimed at middle-school girls. My wife looked puzzled at this video and asked, "So what is the point of the boys in this group?" That sums it up quite nicely.
Anyway, the "Library" section is best of the four sections on the supplement disc, with plenty of production art (thank heaven they dropped Gaston's original sidekick, a racist caricature named "Oui-Oui"), interviews, and general information that shines through the gushing and back-patting. In Mrs. Potts' "Den" section, you can watch a half-length version of the same documentary you just watched in the "Library," this time hosted by Celine Dion, who calls Disney our "communal storyteller." Only this material, and a self-congratulatory final segment (not as sincere as the tribute to Howard Ashman on the longer version) is substantially different. Watch for Michael Eisner's veiled threats over the end credits to milk the franchise by releasing more special editions of the movie. After this "making of" featurette, you can also play "Mrs. Potts' Personality Profile," a questionnaire that tells you which character in the film you are most like. But the best supplement in this section is "The Story Behind the Story," a half-hour collection of featurettes (they appear to have been produced for the Disney Channel) that display Disney's lack of faithfulness across the board to the original stories upon which their major films are based. Maybe that is unfair: most of these stories have been retold in so many different ways that Disney has every right to adapt its version to contemporary audiences. As Paige O'Hara points out in her segment on Cinderella, the Perrault version that Walt used is only one of many from around the world of this familiar fairy tale. Robbie Benson points out correctly that Walt instructed his crew not to read Kipling's two Jungle Books while working on the film version, and Ming-Na and David Ogden Stiers acknowledge that Disney took liberties with the legends of Mulan and Pocahontas. But more often then not, these segments are less than candid. The Lion King makes no mention of Osamu Tezuka's Jungle Tatei, which I expected, but also leaves out Hamlet or any other influence on the story. And Angela Lansbury smiles when she reveals that Hunchback of Notre Dame is based on Victor Hugo's novel but neglects to mention the grim details Disney had to cut out in their rather loose version.
For the kids, Chip hosts some fun in the "Kitchen" section, including a memory game, that aforementioned Jump 5 video, and a collection of loud and fast (or what Hollywood types call "hip and cool") Disney Channel featurettes on "Disney Animation Magic." The "West Wing" hides some CG-driven puzzles that actually provides a bit of a challenge for an hour or so, and might offer replay value if your kid does not already own a video game console.
While I have always preferred Jean Cocteau's luminously cryptic version of the tale to Disney's 1991 adaptation, I must admit that Disney's Beauty and the Beast holds up pretty well over the last decade and ranks as one of the company's better animated efforts. Sustained by strong characters and a powerful score, the film translates so well to DVD that even the unfinished version is worth watching. While Disney's supplements on this Platinum Edition are a mixed bag (too much repetition of stuff that was not so great to begin with), it cannot be said that the company is not at least trying to give the fans more bang for their buck. And the cast and crew of this entertaining film certainly put on a great show, even if the suits upstairs sometimes take too much credit. In this light, I can comfortably recommend Beauty and the Beast for your family. This Platinum Edition is not quite up to the thorough presentation of Snow White, but the good easily outweighs the bad.
Cast, crew, and characters have proven themselves worthy of reward, and the court releases them with its blessing. All the villains of the piece are suitably cast down. Court is adjourned.
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