Sunday, January 2, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (8/50) -- Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Welcome to 2011, everyone! I hope your New Years Eve was safe and enjoyable, and that your New Years Day is free of hangover (if you’re still groggy, you can always do what I did last year: lie on the couch and watch something undemanding while you compose yourself, like Fantasia or something). And what better way to kick off this fresh new epoch than an entry on one of Disney’s most-beloved films of all time? That’s right, we’ll be covering The Adventures of Icabod & Mr. Toad. Jokes. It’s Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast was an odd duck in my childhood, in that I totally and definitely grew up on it, but never actually watched it at my house. Like certain other films, my experience with this one was brought about almost entirely through day care, but unlike certain other films, I rather enjoyed this one. However, being a “girl’s movie,” my mom never really encouraged watching it that way she did Aladdin or Robin Hood, so I never really saw it between the ages of 6 and 19, when I came to college. This film has accolades out the yin, so I knew it would be good, but I never realized how good it actually is until a very short time ago.

I missed out on this movie growing up. Don't let it happen to you.

Beauty and the Beast kicks off with a stained glass window, in which the narrator informs us that, “Once upon a time,” a prince (Robby Benson) was transformed into a beast as punishments for his misdeeds and unkindness. The punishment stated that if he could learn to love, and if he could earn someone’s love in return, he would change back into a prince. Otherwise, he would “be doomed to remain a beast forever.”

We then flash to a small, provincial town in France, where a girl named Belle (Paige O’Hara) yearns to fit in, despite everyone’s disinterest in her book smarts. Her father, an inventor named Maurice, leaves to show off a wood-chopping machine in the next town, but becomes lost in the woods, only to find an enormous castle (hmmm…). Deciding to take refuge there, he meets the serving staff, who have also been bewitched: Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), a candelabra; Cogsworth (David Odgen Steirs), a clock; and Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury), a teapot. Unfortunately, the Beast is none-too-kind to visitors, and showcases the hospitality that changed him into a beast in the first place by chucking Maurice in the dungeons.

Back at home, Belle gets word of her father’s imprisonment, and works out a deal with the Beast: Belle will stay in her father’s place. Lumiere and co. see this as a golden opportunity to earn someone’s love, but the Beast is not the best around girls, making the first few moments around them a bit hairy (bahaha). Belle storms out, and is ambushed by wolves, but she is saved at the last moment by the beast. Realizing that he might not be such an awful person after all, Belle returns, and the rest of the film is their journey towards finding love, culminating in the beast’s return to his human form, and a happily ever after ending.

The story is book-ended by stained glass window segment, rather than the traditional storybook. It's a nice visual effect.

As with The Lion King, I would be very surprised if you weren’t already familiar with Beauty and the Beast’s plot. Along with The Little Mermaid, this one is credited with kicking off the Disney Renaissance, grossing a fine chunk of money and becoming the only animated feature to be nominated for a Best Picture (let’s face it: I love Up as much as the next guy, but if the nominees number wasn’t expanded to 10, it wouldn’t have gotten the nom in 2009). Worse movies have gotten higher praise, though, and Beauty and the Beast isn’t good merely because it’s a critical and commercial darling—it’s good because it’s good.

First, let’s talk about the music. Oh, sweet mustache, this is film has wonderful music. The songs here are immortal; bring up Beauty and the Beast and to anyone, and they’re bound to start humming “Be Our Guest” or the title song. The late Howard Ashman had a particular flair when it came to lyrics, and some of his best work is on display in Beauty. I’ve always loved list-making songs, so “Be Our Guest” is my favorite, but it’s hard not to love the raucous, rousing “Gaston” (Roger Ebert, in his 1991 review, raved that it “brings down the house”), or “Belle,” which I am convinced is one of the best Opening Songs in any musical movie or show, as it introduces setting and nearly all of the characters and their motivations (it’s also catchy as hell).

What I didn’t notice my recent viewing is how wonderful the score is. Alan Menkin, who scored Beauty, has won more Oscars than any currently-living person, and you bet your sweet bippy that he took home numbers 3 and 4 with this film. Exciting, romantic, mysterious, joyous, this score runs a gamut of emotions, all while sounding cohesive and unified. My favorite part was how little themes and snatches of songs would weave their way into the melodies, like when the tune for “Be Our Guest” plays in the background as the castle furniture beats the s@$# out of an invading mob, or how the haunting seven-note Beast’s theme peeks on here and there.

Perhaps more than any other Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast feels the part of a Broadway stage musical.

Also worth mentioning is how wildly ATTRACTIVE this movie is to the eyes. Beauty and the Beast was only the second feature to be made with the CAPS system (the Computer-Assisted Production System, which made things like painting easier and more detailed), but Beauty makes being beautiful look so darn easy (this and Amy Adams. Rawr). The shadows, effects, and colors are all top notch (especially on Blu-ray, but we’ll get there in a sec), and the film’s emotional impact has a good deal to do with how easy it is to buy into the world.

Of course, all of the stellar animation effects in the world wouldn’t do a lick of good if the characters weren’t likeable (don’t believe me? Try We’re Back: A Dinosaur Story). Beauty and the Beast features a slew of interesting, enjoyable characters. I rather enjoyed Lumiere and Cogsworth’s sibling rivalry-esque relationship (particularly since I enjoy the timbre of Jerry Orbach’s voice so much; it’s enough to make me want to start watching “Law and Order”), and Mrs. Potts is every inch the charming, wonderful person you would expect from someone voiced by Angela Lansbury. There are a few fun bit parts too, like Belle’s armoire (“You’ll look ravishing in this!”). Belle is a good, strong heroine, and Gaston (Richard White) has a cool arc where he turns from a chauvinistic pig to a monster.

The whole ensemble is strong, with some great moments of banter between the characters.

The most interesting character, for me, is the Beast (who, according to some Disney encyclopedia, is really named Adam. I dunno. Ask her). I’ve never quite appreciated the layered, nuanced performance that he gives throughout the movie. We know that he was transformed into a beast for being a douche, but I never noticed the moments where he is awkward and insecure. One bit comes when he’s walking Belle to the castle area upon her arrival. Belle is taken aback that the Beast would let her stay in the castle instead of the dungeon, and the Beast, shifting his eyes and looking unsure, asks if she “wants to stay in the tower.” It’s a small part, but it demonstrates how the Beast doesn’t know how to handle himself around people. Another moment comes when he loses his temper at Belle for entering the forbidden West Wing; Beast rages uncontrollably, smashing things and roaring until Belle flees, but when she leaves, we see him expressing remorse for what happened moments earlier. Beast’s layers and character flaws make him so much more interesting than if he were simply a raging, storming creature like King Kong who was tamed by beauty.

Beauty and the Beast has been rightly acclaimed as one of the great animated features of our time, and it deserves every note sung of its praises. Funny, exciting, heart-stirring, Beauty and the Beast is what most animated features want to be when they grow up.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “Be Our Guest”
  2. “Belle”
  3. “Gaston”

Favorite scene:

  • “Be Our Guest”

Favorite character:

  • The Beast (I wanted to put Lumiere here so badly, but the depth of character the Beast has pushes him over the top)

The Jar Jar:

  • LeFou

How I Watched It

In mid-October, Beauty and the Beast was released on Blu-ray as part of the Diamond Edition series, so, of course, I picked it up on day one. I mentioned in my Bolt write-up about how it popped off the screen, but that was peanuts to how flabbergasting PRETTY this movie is in hi-def. The colors are bright, the lines are crisp and clean, and everything about the picture looks positively immaculate—I literally kept saying “Look at the colors!” at least once every ten minutes throughout the film. The original Platinum Edition DVD had some issues with looking washed-out and pale (especially compared with the almost-too-dark VHS version), but this transfer has none of those issues. The film also sounds nice in surround sound, but since my audio equipment is light years behind what it would have to be in order to take advantage of Dolby 7.1 Lossless or whatever the bollocks it’s supposed to be, the subtleties are basically lost on me.

My favorite part about Disney “editions” that are named after precious metals is the wealth of bonus content they provide, and Beauty and the Beast’s special features don’t disappoint. On disc 1 is a commentary from producer Don Hahn and directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale; I haven’t watched it yet, but having enjoyed past Disney commentaries for The Lion King and Aladdin, I’ll check it out when I get a chance. Also on disc 1 is a 20-minute featurette called “Composing a Classic,” which is an informal interview/conversation about the music of Beauty between Alan Menkin and Don Hahn, along with Disney historian Richard Craft. There’s loads of interesting tidbits, and Menkin performs several of the songs on piano himself in addition to talking about them, which is fairly neat.

Disc 2 is where the real bounty is. The headliner for this disc is “Beyond Beauty,” a 45-minute doc on the film’s history, from pre-production to final release, and everything in between. The cool thing about “Beyond Beauty” is its branching path-style setup. Through the course of the doc, an icon will pop up letting viewers know about additional extras, and, if selected, the doc branches to the other extras seamlessly, effectively taking the barebones 45-minute version and taking to somewhere in the realm of 2 ½ hours if you watched every supplemental extra. Highlights include a 12-minute tribute to the late Howard Ashman and a look each character and their animator in Beauty. Also included on the disc are a bevy of bonus features from the Platinum Edition release, including animation tests, concept art, and alternate takes on certain songs and scenes. This release’s cup runneth over with supplementary material, and anyone looking to get an inside look into Beauty and the Beast will be more than satisfied by the Diamond Edition Blu-ray.

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