Friday, January 13, 2012

Beauty and the Beast 3D

Review by Pete Roche

It’s a tale as old as time…or at least as old as Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s familiar adaptation of the even older French fable, Belle et la Bete, (first published in the 1740s by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneueve).  Yes, it’s Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST—now back in theatres, having received a 3D facelift for its twentieth anniversary. 

Not that it needed one.

Given that anyone over age five has already seen the animated classic that (along with THE LITTLE MERMAID and THE LION KING) resuscitated the House of Mouse, and that there’s nothing new here save some post-production glitter, the obvious question is:  Does Disney’s digital enhancement warrant going into pocket again for another go-round?

The short answer is no.

There’s no arguing that BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is rare cinema magic, a delightfully-rendered take on the story of a peasant inventor’s daughter who sees past a temperamental prince’s ferocious facade to discover the gentleman inside.  The old-school animation is sublime, the storyboarding pristine, and the care taken to flesh out the blossoming romance between the principals is apparent in every frame.  Released before the advent of Pixar’s computer-generated cartoon blockbusters, BEAUTY gave Robin Hood and the Terminator a run for the money in 1991 and was the first ever animated feature nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture [It lost to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, but Alan Menken deservedly took Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song].  Direct-to-video sequels ENCHANTED CHRISTMAS and BELLE’S MAGICAL WORLD followed in 1997 and 1998, and the film was added to the National Film Registry for being awesome…er, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Disney produced a “restored” BEAUTY for theatres in 2002, tacking on new musical sequence “Human Again,” and offered a deluxe DVD before locking the title away in a vault like a princess in a tower.

Granted, everything you loved about BEAUTY is intact—and if you haven’t caught it on the big screen before, you probably should while you can.  Broadway chanteuse Paige O’Hara is engaging as Belle, the pretty bookworm who daydreams for more than her “provincial life.”  Richard White is fabulous as Gaston, the village’s “positively primeval” alpha male—an irascible egotist who uses antlers in all his decorating and will stop at nothing to make Belle his humble housewife.  Then of course there’s 70s teen idol Robbie Benson as The Beast, the hirsute antihero with a heart of gold who falls for Belle after imprisoning her in his cursed castle. 

The supporting cast of anthropomorphic household items is likewise stellar, from Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Potts (tea kettle) to Lumiere (the candlestick) and Cogsworth (a clock), who bicker like Oscar and Felix while hosting their reluctant female guest.  Beast has only so much time to win Belle’s affections and break the spell clouding his gloomy estate;  The last petal of the magic rose in the castle’s “forbidden” West Wing will drop on his 21st birthday, at which point Beast will be forever doomed to his hideous form, and his help to their various bric-a-brac shapes.  Good thing his visitor is not only an attractive female, but one of similar age.  How convenient!  And despite her stubbornness, Belle is compassionate, forgiving, loves the castle library, and can carry a tune. 

Lumiere and Cogsworth coach their socially inept master during his courtship of the girl, a la Cyrano de Bergerac, making for some kid-friendly humor.  Meanwhile, Gaston—a perfect love-to-hate antagonist if ever there was one—determines to kill the “monster” and steal Belle for himself, committing the damsel’s father to an asylum to force her hand.  Songs like “Be Our Guest,” “Gaston,” “Something There,” and “Beauty and the Beast” (sung by Lansbury herself) rank among the best in Disney’s considerable catalogue, but the “Human Again” sequence has been removed (an omission not unnoticed by my 12-year old daughter, who last spring performed in a “junior” version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at school). 

It struck this writer on revisiting BEAUTY that perhaps the story’s true villain isn’t Gaston, but the sorceress who curses Beast (in the prologue) for refusing to provide  her shelter.  I mean, why should this young fellow grant her entry?  She’s not only a stranger, but a disfigured one at that—a deceiver who manifests her true comeliness only after he’s turned her away.  Is this someone you can trust?  This poor guy was in his own home minding his own business on an inclement evening; why test him—much less curse him when he “fails?”  At least everyone knows Gaston is a burly boor. Unlike the witch woman, he doesn’t conceal his genuine self.  He probably couldn’t if he wanted to.  

One notices BEAUTY’s tacked-on 3D effects when there’s an appreciably pokey object in the foreground, like a tree branch or chandelier—but the illusory process doesn’t really add much to proceedings as an in-studio afterthought.  Unlike new CGI-based fare that incorporates 3D technology from the get-go, BEAUTY redux doesn’t boast any eye-popping moments that weren’t already there.  Belle and Beast’s waltz in the castle ballroom remains both the film’s emotional epicenter and its most visually-stimulating segment, having been created by technology that was cutting-edge for its time (Lumiere’s musical number comes close, what with all the dancing feather-dusters, flying plates, and chorus-line cutlery).  If your younglings haven’t seen B&B before, you’re best off adding the DVD to your library permanently instead of paying a premium for a one-off at the cinema.

Then again, if you're just waiting for a little extra incentive to fork out again for Belle and friends, your rugrats will be tickled by the brilliant TANGLED mini-sequel preceding BEAUTY during the new run.  Directed by the same fellows who brought us last year’s hair-raising cartoon, TANGLED EVER AFTER takes us to the wedding of Rapunzel and Eugene “Flynn Ryder,” where horse Maximus and chameleon Pascal have some trouble with the royal rings.  The writers of this glorious short do everything right, packing in visual cues from TANGLED (including frying pans, luminaries, and squealing red-headed girls) into the animal-centric adventure without making it seem forced.  Our favorite thugs are back—including the hook-handed pianist, the diminutive drunk, Vladimir the Viking, and the (apparently-reformed) Stabbington twins—all making character-appropriate quips at the solemn church occasion.  Disney can’t whip up second full-length TANGLED installment soon enough. 3 1/2 out of 4 stars


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