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With: (voices) Paige O'Hara, Robby Benson, Angela Lansbury, David Ogden Stiers, Jerry Orbach, Richard White, Bradley Pierce, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti, Hal Smith, Jo Anne Worley, Mary Kay Bergman, Brian Cummings, Alvin Epstein, Tony Jay
Written by: Linda Woolverton
Directed by: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 90
Date: 09/28/1991

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

4 Stars (out of 4)

For Beastie Boys and Girls

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Boy, am I a king-sized, A-1 sap. Watching the new 10th anniversary "Special Edition" of Beauty and the Beast on the Metreon's big IMAX screen, I found myself getting all choked up again. And it's not like I haven't seen it six times already. It just goes to show you that even Disney can get it right once in a while.

The music is absolutely the movie's biggest asset -- lyrics by the late Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken. Ashman died in March of 1991, after completing The Little Mermaid (1989) but before he could ever see the finished Beauty and the Beast (nor did he see his half of the Aladdin compositions come to life in 1992). After Ashman's death, Disney hired a never-ending parade of lite-rock radio hacks to come up with marketable ditties that ranged from innocuous to atrocious. Only Ashman and Menken's music stirred the soul.

And now we have the chance to see another Ashman and Menken composition for the first time. The song "Human Again" was written for the film and scrapped, then revived for the hit Broadway musical. The new animation seamlessly matches the old, and the new number fits superbly within the fabric of the film.

The moment Beauty and the Beast starts, we're in magic land. Directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) lay out the backstory in the form of beautiful glass panels. Beast (voiced by Robby Benson) was once a handsome prince whose vanity caused him to be mean to a sorceress. We also meet Belle (voiced by Paige O'Hara) through the marvelous song "Belle," in which we learn that she's smart as well as beautiful, and longs to do something spectacular with her life rather than simply marry some local simpleton. The local simpleton, the brawny, square-jawed Gaston (voiced by Richard White) decides to marry her anyway and enlists the help of his pipsqueak sidekick Le Fou (a.k.a. "the fool," voiced by Jesse Corti).

But Belle's father, Maurice (voiced by Rex Everhart) loses his way in the woods while on the way to a science fair to exhibit his new automated wood chopper. He finds refuge in a mysterious castle, belonging to the Beast. The enchanted servants of the castle appear as a candlestick named Lumiere (voiced by Jerry Orbach), a clock named Cogsworth (voiced by David Ogden Stiers), a teapot named Mrs. Potts (voiced by Angela Lansbury) and her son, a teacup named Chip (voiced by Bradley Pierce). Unfortunately the Beast takes him prisoner. Belle tracks him down and offers to take his place.

So if the Beast and Belle can fall mutually in love, the castle's spell will be broken, and everyone will be human again. Perhaps that's one of the strengths of this film, that looks alone will not do the trick (which is not the case in other Disney films). Both Belle and Beast must rely on friendship and personality before they fall in love. Hence, both boys and girls enjoy the film, and Disney rakes in double their box office.

I'm sure the filmmakers were aware of Jean Cocteau's 1946 filmed version of this same story (originally written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1757), and kept as many "French" references as possible as a tribute ("Belle," "Lumiere," "Maurice," etc.). This lends an exotic flavor to the proceedings and makes the story seem even more faraway and magical than if it had been a completely American -- just as many live-action stories seem more romantic when set in Paris. It's just something the French have.

Seeing Beauty and the Beast on the IMAX screen can be spellbinding at first, but it also serves to blow up some of the film's tiny artistic flaws, which were never apparent before. In drawing the many dozens of pictures, the animators often fudged on very small details -- details that are now on display for all to see. Nonetheless, we can easily forgive them, as this film was done almost completely by hand and was certainly not intended for the IMAX screen.

On the other hand, these were the earliest days of CGI and the film uses a few computer-generated effects to spectacular effect in two of the musical numbers. The animators understood that the new technology couldn't be used to represent organic beings, so they simply used it for backgrounds; i.e. the swirling, spinning ballroom during the "Beauty and the Beast" dance number. This scene is still dazzling and translates the best to the IMAX screen.

Moreover, Lansbury's performance of the song is soulful and moving in a way that defies all cynicism. But Disney gave an indication of things to come with a second version of the song, by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson, running during the end credits. It's a gutless, empty, abominable rendition that was intended for (and received) lots of radio airplay. It remains the film's biggest flaw, and a direct insult to Lansbury's version.

Thankfully, Disney opted to re-release the film in winter, where Disney movies belong. They count on a strong sense of nostalgia, which runs deeper during the holidays. When Disney began releasing their animated films as summer blockbusters starting in 1994 with the wretched The Lion King, they lost that ace. Released again at the perfect time, Beauty and the Beast remains a near-perfect film, the second best Disney film after 1941's Dumbo.

Disney's brilliant 2002 DVD contains the 1991 theatrical version, the 2001 extended version and the unfinished pencil-sketch version that premiered at the New York Film Festival, plus many other extras. In 2010, Disney released a Blu-Ray combo pack (the Diamond Edition) with some new hi-def extras. The 1991 cut and the 2001 cut are both avaialble on the Blu-Ray disc, but the pre-release cut -- which I adore -- is only available on the DVD portion; it was not mastered for Blu-Ray. Too bad, but this is still an essential item.

In 2016, Disney released a new Blu-ray edition (the Signature Edition) that also includes a DVD and a digital copy. It comes with the theatrical cut, the extended cut, and the "Sing-Along" cut. There are a bunch of new extras, and all the older extras are now included as a digital-only option (i.e. they are not on the physical disc). The pre-release/pencil-sketch version is advertised as one of the digital-only extras, but it's only offered as a "screen-in-screen experience" (i.e. a little window with the work-in-progress version superimposed over the finished theatrical cut). Collectors had better make sure their hard-copy versions are still on hand. The commentary track is the same. The audio and video quality are excellent, though there's no discernible improvement over the previous Blu-ray.

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