27 August 2012

Disney Daze: Week 30: Beauty and the Beast

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

A renaissance cannot exist with just one work of art. For all of its success--critically, commercially, artistically--The Little Mermaid could not have single-handedly turned the tides at the Disney studios. Had the company followed the acclaimed picture with a succession of sequels like The Rescuers Down Under or left the animation department with the budget cuts and downsized staff of the seventies and eighties, the legacy of the studio would be very different today. But the regime of Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg doubled down on The Little Mermaid's success, throwing money and talent at the animation department in hopes of regaining some of the prestige once synonymous with a Walt Disney production. 1991's Beauty and the Beast was the second product of these monumental labors. 

Once again Disney returned to the well of fairy tales which had provided the studio with the inspiration for some of its most vaunted pictures. The tale of a selfish prince cursed with the visage of a hideous creature until he learns to love was ripe for the Disney treatment. The film, like its origins, are set in 18th century France. The filmmakers would use elements from the original story by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, as well as bits from the great 1946 cinematic version directed by Jean Cocteau.

The animation in Beauty and the Beast is uniformly sumptuous. From the opening return of the multi-plane camera to the exquisitely rendered three-dimensional ballroom scene, each frame is imbued with artistry and skill. The film opens with a wonderful prologue showing the birth of Beast's curse through fantastically drawn panes of stained glass. There are exquisite uses of CGI throughout the feature that bring depth and provide subtle and sublime camera movement. The action animation too is stellar, being more than sufficiently harrowing in both a vicious wolf attack and the climactic castle battle between Beast and the vain Gaston.

The character designs run the gamut from the bland and derivative (most of the provincial humans) to charming and inspired (the enchanted housewares of Beast's castle). Belle herself falls a little far into the generic Disney princess trap and her eyeballs are excessively large. Meanwhile this viewer wishes the design of Beast was perhaps a bit more repulsive. Besides moments where his temper flares, he always looks too plush and cuddly. The animators do a wonderful job of transposing certain elements of his beastly attributes to his regenerated human self at the film's end, retaining his haunted blue eyes and giving him a flowing mane of blond hair. The most curious design is that of Belle's father Maurice who looks like the spitting image of David Crosby. 

Beauty and the Beast was the second Disney collaboration between lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken. The songs here are more overtly theatrical than their previous work in The Little Mermaid. It's no wonder that the film became the inspiration for Disney's first live Broadway production. As such, the early expository tunes such as "Belle" and "Gaston" are a bit too robust and bombastic for the screen. Every line is belted to the rafters and each song features a huge, rowdy chorus. One expects the characters to pause a beat at tune's end for rapturous applause. Songs appearing later in the picture, including the Simpsons' parodied "Be Our Guest" and the wonderful Angela Lansbury-sung title ballad, fare far better. During the film's production Howard Ashman died at the age of forty due to complications with AIDS. While the last pieces credited to the songwriting pair would appear in the following year's Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast would be their last complete work together. Menken would continue to write melodies for many Disney features but he never again worked with such a spirited and witty writer.

The film is reminiscent at times of two earlier Disney pictures. The opening musical introduction to Belle and the small village is practically a remake of Ichabod Crane's bookish perambulations through Sleepy Hollow in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. ToadBy the way, wouldn't it be great to see a beautiful, well-read gal like Belle settle down with a gangly, geeky school teacher just once? A nerd can dream. Meanwhile the entitled Gaston is most definitely a direct descendent of Ichabod's nemesis Brom Bones. Elsewhere, the anthropomorphized cookery, clocks and candles of Beast's house staff can't help but recall the inhabitants of a certain Wonderland. The keyhole that convinces Alice to shrink herself most certainly would have fit in just fine in the west wing of Beast's castle. Likewise, Gaston's diminutive sidekick Lefou looks like a distant cousin of Tweedles Dee and Dum. 

Beauty and the Beast was rapturously received by critics and the public. It became the third highest grossing film of 1991 (The Rescuers Down Under was number 42 the previous year) and went on to receive an unprecedented six Academy Award nominations, including the first Best Picture nomination for an animated feature. While the film is not quite the cinematic achievement of its predecessor The Little Mermaid or its creative forefathers that blazed a bold and innovative trail some half century before, it is an indelible entertainment that is surprisingly moving at moments. As the Beast finally becomes man and fireworks rain down from his castle, another transformation was now complete. Disney was once again the standard bearer for high-quality animation, indelible songs, and surefire storytelling.

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