Given that the House of Mouse seems to touch everything from television to postage stamps these days, it is hard to believe that there was a time when Disney was on the rocks financially. As documented in the excellent James B. Stewart book Disney War, and the more recent documentary film Waking Sleeping Beauty, Disney had been on a slow decline at least since the 1980 animation The Fox and the Hound, but had never been quite right since the death of Walt. However, Disney had a surprise hit on their hands with The Little Mermaid in 1989, and this almost single-handedly renewed the public’s love for the magic of Disney. Yet it was Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, that put Disney back on the map, a began a series of mega-hits that would include Aladdin and The Lion King.
Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara) is something of an oddity in her French provincial town. With her nose always in a book, her reputation is further sullied by her eccentric inventor father and her constant refusal of town heartthrob Gaston. When her father is lost on the way to a fair, he finds himself a prisoner in the castle of the Beast. Once a handsome prince, the Beast was cursed to be a fearsome creature until he learns to love and is loved in return. The catch is that this has to happen before the last petal on an enchanted rose falls. When Belle offers to take her father’s place, the mystical creatures that inhabit the castle (once the human servants of the prince) see an opportunity to break the curse. However, the course of true love never did run smooth.
Beauty and the Beast remains a classic almost two decades on, so there is very little need to restate that the groundbreaking animation, wonderful songs (including the Oscar-winning score by Alan Menken and title tune, along with highly imitable tunes like “Be Our Guest”, co-written by the late Howard Ashman) and masterful storytelling keeps this as fresh as the day it was released. The real question is how does it look in 3D? More to the point, does the 3D presentation add anything to the picture? One of the hesitations I had going in was that the 3D would be something artificial and tacked on.
When Meet the Robinsons was released to cinemas back in 2007, it was accompanied by the 1953 animated short Working for Peanuts, which was presented in Disney ‘RealD’ Digital 3D. It worked surprisingly well, but I was sceptical whether this would work for a more detailed feature like Beauty and the Beast. The amount of depth it provides is initially startling, as we can almost see the cogs working as we push down through the layers (like the original multiplane camera demos from the early days of Disney animation). Here characters seem to leap off the backgrounds, at first seeming almost separate from the film. Yet once the initial shock wears off, the format allows us to see just how much work goes into every layer of a Disney animated classic. The now classic ballroom scene, which featured some of Disney’s most notable early use of CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) to combine computer generated imagery with the traditional hand-drawn variety, is simply breathtaking in the 3D format. The colours pop off the screen and there was an audible gasp from the audience during this sequence.
As Disney aptly displayed in the recent release of The Princess and the Frog, it is the simple and traditional stories that are the most enduring. There is nothing overly complex about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: the innocent Belle is headstrong but innocently beautiful, her jealous suitor Gaston is a caricature of an egotistical buffoon and even the gruff Beast (cleverly never named) wins our hearts just as he does Belle’s. Filled with a cast of wonderful supporting characters – including Lumiere the candlestick (Jerry Orbach, Law & Order), Cogsworth the majordomo clock (David Odgen Stiers, M*A*S*H) and Mrs Potts the Teapot (Angela Lansbury, Murder, She Wrote) – Beauty and the Beast is a tale as old as time. The format may be new, but the story remains simultaneously fresh and familiar. It is little wonder that it ushered in a new era at Disney and its characters remain enduring to this day.
Beauty and the Beast is having a limited run in Australian cinemas beginning September 2 at Hoyts. It will be re-released on DVD for the first time in almost a decade and debuts on Blu-ray on October 5 in the US, and 13 October 2010 in Australia through Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.