Beauty and the Beast in 3-D: Still an Enchantment

Disney's 1991 animated feature retains its lilt, glow and magic

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“Tale as old as time / Tune as old as song…”

Twenty years old, anyway, going on 21. Beauty and the Beast, the Walt Disney Studio’s 30th cartoon feature, cast a quick, sure spell over audiences, critics and the Motion Picture Academy. The first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture, the movie also secured three of the five slots in the Best Original Song category, winning for the title tune. After many permutations on VHS and DVD, the film is back in theaters, tarted up but not tarnished in 3-D, for a new generation of kids and other movie lovers to see as it should be seen: on a giant screen, in a community of the similarly enthralled.

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Here’s what I wrote about the film in 1991:

Beauty and the Beast, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, is … close to seamless. Its animators’ pens are wands; their movement enchants. Enchantment is at the heart of the story too. A selfish prince (voiced by Robby Benson) lives under the curse of a righteous witch: that he be a beast, confined to his castle, until he can love and be loved. Pretty Belle (Paige O’Hara) will be his cure — if she can shake off her revulsion at being his prisoner and shiver out of the clutches of Gaston (Richard White), a way-too-handsome galoot. In effect, she is trapped between two wolf men. She can see through Gaston’s looking-glass ego, but it takes time for her to find the vulnerability within the Beast’s barbaric, heroic grief. He must be feared, then pitied, and finally loved.

“With an emotional resonance rare in movies and a pleasing score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, Beauty and the Beast gets the comic leavening it needs from a nice modification of the Seven Dwarfs. The prince’s household staff, who labor under the same curse, have been changed into candlesticks (Jerry Orbach), teapots (Angela Lansbury), clocks (David Ogden Stiers) and armoires (Jo Anne Worley). In the ‘Be Our Guest’ number, watch closely for the swimming spoons, the dishes stacked in Eiffel Tower formation, the tankards in chorale. The voluptuousness of visual detail offers proof, if any more were needed after The Little Mermaid, that the Disney studio has relocated the pure magic of the Pinocchio-Dumbo years.”

Unlike most films in the Disney-animation canon, B&B is a love story, a union of misfits. Belle is a brainy bookworm in a town of the narrow-minded; like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, she wants to escape, singing of “adventure in the great wide somewhere.” The Beast is the ultimate misfit, a medieval bestiary in one body; animator Glen Keane portrayed him as a ferocious amalgam of lion, buffalo, wolf, bear and wild boar, with only the Prince’s blue eyes to suggest his buried humanity.

The opening narration explains that the old woman’s curse on the Prince will last until “his 21st year” (which, since the household staff mentions that they’ve been bewitched for a decade, means that the Prince made his fatal decision when he was 10!). For all his feral majesty and bass-baritone growl, the Beast is barely out of his teens — a boy uncomfortable in a body and a temperament he can’t control — and as socially gauche as any kid who’s grown up with servants but no family. At first Belle’s giant bully, imprisoning her in his castle, he reveals a glimmer of humanity when he is wounded rescuing the girl from wolves. His convalescence allows Belle to see him as a moody, helpless child; she becomes the dominant partner by providing the maternal care and eventually romantic commitment he needs to break the curse. As Jean-Luc Godard said in his film essay Histoire(s) du Cinema, “Deep inside each love story lurks the story of a nurse.”

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The plot’s Other Man is Gaston, a cartoon of masculinity with gigantic jaw and muscles (the torso of a Frank Frazetta warlord) but with a fruity tenor voice. He’s like Dudley Do-Right gone wrong. Gaston’s shallow bigotry, for wanting to marry Belle because she’s the prettiest girl in town (“That makes her the best”), corrodes into malevolence when he consigns Belle’s eccentric father to an asylum and leads the ignorant villagers on a torches-and-pitchforks crusade, reminiscent of the last reel of the 1931 Frankenstein, to kill the Beast. Of course Gaston is the real monster, more vile and predatory than the creature in the castle. Beyond the obvious messages that character is beauty, and tenderness strength, the movie says that all men are beasts, until they soften into suitably domesticated mates.

For the new edition, the 3-D filigree work — which comprises perhaps 30 or 40% of the film, allowing you to watch most of it without the glasses — sends wood shavings, bats, tree leaves and rain hurtling out of the screen. The process is sometimes an ornament, once or twice a distraction, but it doesn’t materially dilute the still-sublime experience.

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Trousdale and Wise were still in their 20s when they were called on to direct the movie; Menken and Ashman had done Little Shop of Horrors off-Broadway and The Little Mermaid for Disney — two gifted duos in their early prime. Linda Woolverton (who later scripted Disney’s Alice in Wonderland for Tim Burton) wrote the movie’s screenplay, but it was Ashman’s idea to anthropomorphize the Beast’s household staff. The lyricist died, at 41, eight months before Beauty and the Beast opened, and Menken lost his most imaginative collaborator. The film’s dedication reads: “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.”

Under Jeffrey Katzenberg’s supervision, the Beauty team created a near-perfect blend of musical-theater expertise and Disney animation technique (mostly traditional “hand-drawn,” but making some use of the CGI format that Pixar would fully exploit in Toy Story four years later). The storytelling is swift and solid, from the opening number (“Belle”), which introduces Belle, her father, Gaston and all the townsfolk, to the near-tragic ending, a lovely gradation of emotional shading from comedy to poignancy. Powerful without seeming manipulative, the movie should have the same hold on viewers today as it did in 1991. Two decades isn’t an eon, but Beauty and the Beast stands the test of time.

“Tale as old as time / True as it can be.”