Now that the lacking (okay, largely terrible) movie year that 2001 is over and done with, one can take comfort in the fact that Y2K+2 is kicking off with not only a good film, but one of the all-time greats: a spiffed-up and most welcome reissue of 1991’s masterpiece “Beauty and the Beast.”
Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s “Beauty” is a landmark achievement for the Walt Disney Studios, not least of all in terms the Mouse’s almighty bottom line. Building on the solid $84 million gross of the film that ushered in the feature animation renaissance, 1989’s delightful “The Little Mermaid,” it became the first animated feature to cross the $100 million barrier at the box office. Undoubtedly, that accomplishment had to in part with the film’s Academy Award nomination for Best Picture (still the only one ever awarded to an animated feature), which helped open the film–and, in turn, the animated form in general–to a wider adult audience.
The enduring legacy of “Beauty” lies not, of course, in those facts and figures, but in that it is simply one of the finest works of cinema ever created. Forget, for a moment, that what flashes before one’s eyes for 84 enchanting minutes–well, now 92 minutes, but more on that later–is a bunch of pencil, ink, and paint drawings creating the illusion of physical movement. What stayed with audiences a decade ago and continues to resonate to this day is a different kind of movement–that of one’s heart and soul, by a deceptively simple fairy tale featuring complex, wholly believable, and completely unforgettable main characters. The beautiful and brainy Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara) bravely takes her father’s place as the prisoner of the Beast (Robby Benson), a callow young prince trapped in a monstrous form until he can realize that (to borrow the mantra of “Moulin Rouge!”) “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” Not to be discounted are the more comical supporting players: the living household objects that populate the Beast’s enchanted castle, particularly flirty candelabra Lumière (Jerry Orbach) and prissy clock Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers, who also delivers the film’s famous opening narration); and the film’s irresistible–though not nearly as he believes–villain, the hilariously self-absorbed Gaston (Richard White). Their lighter antics quite amusingly support what the film’s tagline so accurately described as “the most beautiful love story ever told.”
It goes without saying that animation has made great advances in the past decade, and everything from the basic cel work to the then-cutting-edge computer-generated imagery on display in “Beauty” does bear a slightly dated, state-of-1991 flavor. But the remarkable expressiveness of the animation never goes out of fashion, and on the giant IMAX screen–for which the film has been meticulously, gorgeously refurbished and reformatted in both sight and sound–the subtle nuances that may have passed by unnoticed even on multiple viewings register loudly and clearly. Belle briefly catching her breath after declaring she wants “adventure in the great wide somewhere.” The Beast’s face crumbling in reaction to Belle’s offer to take her father’s place. Belle adjusting her golden gown after taking a seat on a castle terrace. The Beast’s eyes momentarily turning downward after Belle says she wants to see her father again. The broader gestures are given even more punch on the large format screen: the Beast’s soul-aching wince when he tells Belle that she must go to her ailing father; how Belle puts her hands over her mouth and shakes her head in stunned disbelief when the Beast dies. Also, needless to say, what were already vibrant and eye-popping sequences on a standard multiplex screen are absolutely breathtaking on IMAX: for a start, the opening shot of the castle and ensuing stained glass window prologue; the Beast’s climactic transformation; and, of course, the central ballroom dance sequence. How refreshing–and almost subversive, in this day and age–it is to see CGI used in an animated feature as a mood-enhancing effect and not for an extravagant action-oriented sequence, which has sadly been its primary application ever since.
A smart screenplay (by Linda Woolverton), a gifted voice cast (that, it must be noted, is free of the marquee names that now clutter animated feature credits), and superior animation work would have already made for a good film, but what makes “Beauty” so justly beloved is a generous helping of magic–namely the divine music by the legendary team of composer Alan Menken and the late, great lyricist Howard Ashman. “Beauty” is absolutely unthinkable without Menken’s marvelous melodies and Ashman’s witty words, and the seamless synergy of score and story rivals that of any classic stage or live-action movie musical. Trousdale and Wise staged and shot the production numbers with panache to match: that circular sweep around Belle when she sings “I want much more than this provincial life” in the Oscar-nominated curtain-raiser “Belle”; the indelible hilltop “Sound of Music” homage that is “Belle (Reprise)” (rendered all the more stunning by IMAX); the swinging camera moves in that showstopping musical monument of self-love, “Gaston”; the Busby Berkeley bustle of the also-nominated “Be Our Guest”; the eloquent simplicity of the Oscar-winning title number.
For this large format reissue, Disney couldn’t resist doing the obligatory “special edition” enhancement of inserting “never-before-seen footage,” and here it comes in the form of the musical number “Human Again,” a Menken-Ashman composition that was cut from the film during the script phase (but later made its way into the successful stage production of “Beauty”). Falling between “Something There” (the song that took its place) and “Beauty and the Beast,” this buoyant tune sung by enchanted objects is a bit of a throwaway–basically, it marks one more incremental step in the warming between Belle and the Beast–but the sequence fits so smoothly into the flow of the picture that first-time viewers won’t notice a difference between the old and the new.
But that new scene shouldn’t be one’s reason to catch the Large Format Special Edition; the opportunity to view a pristine new print of a great film on a towering screen should be. For once, the Disney hyperbole was right–more than ten years after its initial release, “Beauty and the Beast” loses none of its emotional impact, confirming that the film is, indeed, a timeless cinema classic.