It's easy to forget, what with the endless string direct-to-video sequels and long-running musical and theme park omnipresence, what a big deal "Beauty and the Beast" was when it first opened in 1990. But it was. It screened at the 1991 New York Film Festival in an incomplete form (the next time they would show a movie like that was last year, with the rough-around-the-edges version of Martin Scorsese's "Hugo") to a rapturous response and became the first animated movie ever nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. It cemented that period, which began with 1989 "The Little Mermaid" and concluded (unofficially) a decade later with "Tarzan" in 1999, as the second golden age of Disney feature animation. And now it's back, with a fresh coat of 3D paint. Like this past fall's 3D presentation of "The Lion King," it's less a whole new experience than a slightly different one and the main reason for seeing it isn't the newly immersive effects but the profound awesomeness of the original movie. It still gets you.
Like many later Disney animated films, "Beauty and the Beast" was originally conceived as an animated feature by Walt Disney himself, who was supposedly frustrated with cracking a workable story and dismayed by Jean Cocteau's 1946 feature. For years it lingered as "the last great fairy tale" that Disney had yet to attempt and it was only after the animation arm regained its footing with "The Little Mermaid" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" did the studio attempt to make "Beauty and the Beast." An initial attempt by the 'Robert Rabbit' animation director, a Brit named Richard Williams, ultimately failed – his version was too dark and dour and animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, after watching a rough story reel at what was then Florida's Disney-MGM Studios, scrapped that version completely while retaining the initial budget and release date. He assigned a pair of second tier directors, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, who had just completed work on a project for EPCOT, to take over, and convinced Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who were already hard at work on "Aladdin," to come up with some new numbers for "Beauty and the Beast," since in its reconceived version, it was now a Broadway-style music with big song-and-dance numbers.
It's hard to imagine anyone expecting "Beauty and the Beast" to be the masterpiece that it is when it debuted in the fall of 1991. Even after "The Little Mermaid," it probably seemed like some next level shit. On the one hand it's something of a throwback, with the opening narration and prologue, told through a series of stained-glass window panels, evoking the classic Disney fairy tales, with their opening scenes of a giant book being opened. And there isn't anything too cutting edge about the storyline, either, with Belle (Paige O'Hara), the titular beauty, being imprisoned in the castle of the Beast (Robby Benson) after her inventor father runs afoul of the monster. But it still felt like a wholly unique experience, from the outspokenness and independence of our heroine to the fact that our villain isn't some scowling witch or horrible creature but a strapping cad named Gaston (Richard White) to the cast of enchanted objects that inhabited the Beast's castle, like his maitre d Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), transformed into a candelabra or the kindly Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury), now a motherly tea pot.
And then there are the songs. If there's one thing that has remained the most slap-yourself-on-the-forehead brilliant about "Beauty and the Beast," it's the songs by Ashman and Menken. They are, to this day, totally peerless (and, yes, they mercifully removed that extra song, present in the special edition of the movie and the 2002 IMAX re-release). The subtle emotionality and genius word play are all there, with every song seeming to fire on all cylinders, reaching absolute highpoints with the wonderfully villainous "Gaston," where our baddie sings about his own accomplishments, and the show-stopping "Be Our Guest," when the enchanted wait staff dazzle the captive Belle, assuring her that she's not a prisoner she's a guest of the castle.
Oh, and what of the 3D? Well, it's good. You have to understand that this, and not "The Lion King," was supposed to be the initial big 3D re-release by the studio. It even had a planned release date way back in February of 2010, but the studio got skittish (probably after the lackluster response to the "Toy Story"/"Toy Story 2" 3D re-release in the fall of 2009) and in fact, after a very brief two-week stint at Disney's El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, the 3D version of "Beauty and the Beast" quietly debuted…on Blu-ray. But, of course, after "The Lion King" blew away all expectations (it made almost $100 million), a large-scale 3D re-release was go for launch.
You can tell that the formula that made the "Lion King" reissue a success, with an emphasis on pop-up book dimensionality that didn't make things feel too spring-loaded, was already in play here. The process is noticeable from the very beginning of the film, with the way the title card hovers off the background (which itself is more deep), and the abundance of backgrounds and European architecture in "Beauty and the Beast" lends itself to the process slightly more than "The Lion King," since, after all, we're talking about an extremely high-tech version of the multi-plane camera system that Walt concocted to give the animated movies more visual oomph. The ballroom sequence, a pioneering use of computer-generated imagery in a traditionally animated film, does seem to glitter with an extra dash of you-are-there immersion, but it's not the 3D that makes you well up a little bit.
It's very easy to become cynical about this "Beauty and the Beast" re-release, from the way it was announced immediately following box office windfall of "The Liong King" to the fact that, in the ever-spiraling ouroboros that is the Disney marketing machine, its timed to give an extra push to their super-expensive Fantasyland Forest expansion of Florida's Magic Kingdom park, which opens this year, and features as one of its premiere attractions, a "Beauty and the Beast"-themed Be Our Guest restaurant that promises some next-level interactivity and (hopefully) some pretty good soup. (A "Tangled" short film that's attached to "Beauty and the Beast," originally intended for broadcast on the Disney Channel, is meant to continue the Disney Princess brand while also continuing the Fantasyland Forest agenda.) But watching "Beauty and the Beast," on the big screen, with that booming sound, and the only thing you feel is magic.
"Beauty and the Beast" was, and remains, a masterpiece. It's a beautifully produced animated accomplishment, for sure, and its collection of brilliant, bittersweet songs resonate even more today (especially after the stories recounted in the staggering 2009 documentary "Waking Sleeping Beauty" about Ashman's struggle with AIDS during production). The story itself, while hardly innovative, was streamlined and stocked with memorable, immediately recognizable characters and was told with the utmost wit, humor, and heart. Even after having seen it a hundred times on various home video formats and knowing all of its spin-offs and adaptations by heart, "Beauty and the Beast" remains a singular accomplishment. The film supposedly got a standing ovation during its premiere at the New York Film Festival. You still kind of want to give it one today. [A]