The legacy of Walt Disney and the studio he created requires little explanation. The studio invented the idea of a feature-length cartoon and has been on the cutting edge of animation since the 1930’s. No other studio can claim ownership of as many animated classics as Disney. From Mickey Mouse to Pixar, the studio has churned out one masterpiece after another for over 60 years. What tends to get lost in this great body of feature-length classics is that the studio was also producing some very high-quality shorts over these years. Whether it’s Disney favorites like Mickey, Donald, Minnie, or Goofy or it’s strictly one-off characters gathered to tell a wonderfully animated story, Disney has a record that simply hasn’t been and likely will never be matched.
The Disney magic faded for a little while during the 1980’s. There were still animated features, but they weren’t the groundbreaking triumphs of the studio’s golden age. All of that changed as we entered the 1990’s. The Little Mermaid is considered the first of the new wave of Disney classics. It certainly signaled a change in the direction of animation at Disney. While the change may have begun there, I believe it was Beauty And The Beast that started a wave of productions that would peak with The Lion King. With Beauty And The Beast everything is cranked up a notch from the mediocre affairs the studio had been churning out for a time. Beauty And The Beast had the epic proportions, fluid animation, and bright colors that set the Disney Express back on track.
Legend tells of a prince who once answered his door to find an ugly old woman there holding a rose. She pleaded for shelter from the elements, but the prince turned her away. Once the prince had turned her away, she transformed into a beautiful woman. She cursed the prince for judging her by her appearance. He would become a hideous beast. The rose was left to him as a reminder of his deed. If he could not change is heart in such a way that a woman falls in love with him before the last petal falls, he would be doomed to spend the rest of his days as an ugly beast.
Enter Belle (O’Hara). She and her father live in a backward village, but she doesn’t really want this “provincial” life. She loves to read, and the townsfolk consider her rather odd. But she is also the most beautiful woman in the village and has caught the eye of Gaston (White). Gaston is considered the heartthrob of every woman in the village except for the one he really wants. You guessed it. Belle. He’s a narcissistic man with rather old-fashioned ideas about a woman’s place. He certainly doesn’t think a woman should waste her time reading when there’s a man to be served. This will never do for Belle, so she resists his advances each time.
One day Maurice (Everhart), her father, stumbles into the castle of the Beast. The Beast is still quite ill-tempered and throws the trespasser into a cell. When Belle tracks her father down, she pleads with the Beast for his freedom. She eventually buys it with a promise that she will willingly remain behind forever in his place. The Beast agrees. Everyone in the house, in the form of inanimate objects because of the curse, sees Belle as the one to lift the curse. Unfortunately, the Beast treats her harshly and can not control his temper. But, when Belle finds herself in danger, attacked by a vicious pack of wolves, he finds he’ll risk his life to save her. Eventually, he learns to be more gentle and wins the heart of Belle. It may be too late, however. Gaston has stirred up the villagers to storm the castle and kill the Beast. Now it is Belle who finds she’ll risk her life to save the Beast.
The story is actually one of the oldest written fairy tales around. It was first recorded in 1740 by a French author. There have been countless versions of the tale since then. There have been many films including the 1946 classic French version that stared Josette Day as Belle and Jean Marais as the Beast. It was a powerful film with some of the day’s best makeup effects used on Marais. The story in the Disney animated feature follows the general plot of that film, but offers the usual Disney spin. This was the first time we would have talking clocks and candlesticks. The idea that the staff of the house had been transformed as well is unique to this version of the tale.
What makes this such a classic is attributed to the songwriting team of Howard Ashman on lyrics and Alan Menken as composer. The two had already teamed up on The Little Mermaid and had created the hugely popular Little Shop Of Horrors on Broadway. They brought a sense of musical elegance that Disney hadn’t really enjoyed since the Sherman Brothers. Ashman was particularly instrumental in creating the style of the film. He insisted that the feature be created not so much as a movie but a Broadway production. He wanted huge Broadway numbers and a cast of noted Broadway performers. Everything from staging to dialog was shifted toward that style. It was exactly what the film needed. Six months of previous work had already been scrapped because the crew just couldn’t capture the right style and mood for the film. The stage idea was a good one that fit the story perfectly. The duo would create some of Disney’s most-loved songs including Be Our Guest and the hit Beauty And The Beast. Unfortunately, Ashman would never see the finished product. He was terminally ill during the production, something he hid from his colleagues for much of the production. When it was discovered, the production shifted to his home in New York where everyone accommodated their inspirational leader. He died before the movie was released. The film ultimately bears a dedication to him in the end credits. Ashman was one of the first celebrities to die of AIDS and brought attention to the disease that it previously did not attract.
The Broadway cast included Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, Robby Benson, Paige O’Hara, and David Ogden Stiers. Ashman was right on the money, and it’s this epic stage presence idea that makes this one of the stand-out films of that decade. I’m not a huge fan of the story, and this is not even close to one of my favorite Walt Disney animated features. But you’ve got to respect the very scope of the film and the incredible design. Favorite or not, this one belongs in every Disney library. Now through the additional magic of high definition, you can own it like you’ve never seen it before.
Beauty And The Beast is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio of 1.78:1. You’re going to be amazed at the quality of this image. It’s presented in full 1080p through a solid AVC/MPEG-4 codec. I was astonished at the depth and brilliance of this picture. Colors are simply outstanding and bright. Detail is at a level I still find hard to believe even though I’ve seen them do this with films much older. What amazes me most is the depth the film provides. There are several scenes that appear nearly three-dimensional. Texture is also at an all-time high here. In the ballroom you have to take a look at the marble columns. They look almost photo-real with one of the best animated textures I’ve seen yet. Black levels are superb. You will be hard-pressed to find a flaw in the print or the transfer.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track does everything you could ask it to do. While it doesn’t provide a ton of surrounds, because it shouldn’t, the film feels bigger than it used to. I could sense a great response from my subs. The crew here managed to bring in a fullness without screwing around with the audio placement. Dialog is very clear at all times. Thunderous sounds exist without covering up other important elements. It’s a perfect balance of maintaining the original experience and making it feel bigger. But the real story here is the music. I’m not just talking about crystal-clear vocals. There is a fullness to the orchestrations that I frankly didn’t recall existed with the original print. The dynamic musical reproductions go far beyond even the best-sounding CD. Another job well done.
You get both the single DVD and the 2-disc Blu-ray with this release. Again I find a good news/bad news situation. There is an absolute treasure-trove of material here. Every aspect of the film you want to explore you’ll find with plenty of archive materials and candid conversations with the participants. The bad news is the same old story. Disney appears to go out of their way to overcomplicate things here. The menu is the same for both discs. It’s not until you try to select a feature that you are informed it’s on another disc. The wonderful 2-hour feature also incorporates branching areas where you can explore an idea more deeply. Just give it to me to select from the menu. This feature appears to require that the presentation itself has no time code. You cannot save your position. You cannot rewind for a second if you missed something. Disney gives us a great treasure chest but makes the lock too hard to open.
There are four ways to view the film:
Original Theatrical Version
Extended Version: Here a new 9-minute song is put back into the film
Original Storyboard Version: This version uses storyboards to give you even more of the film
Sing-along Mode: Provides the song lyrics to follow along
Deleted Scenes: There are two scenes cut from the original film. The material is presented through story reel or storyboards.
Music Video: (3:26) Jordin Sparks sings “Beauty And The Beast”.
Composing A Classic: (20:18) Composer Menken is accompanied by his agent and film producer Don Hahn. They talk about the music while Menken provides talk and music. There’s a lot of tribute paid to Howard Ashman here as well.
Disc 2 contains a couple of games and all of the previous DVD features.
Beyond Disney: This is the Holy Grail that provides tons of insight and archival stuff for your enjoyment.
Plea to Disney: This stuff is too precious to be missed. It deserves to be seen. You really need to find an easier way to do this. There is absolutely no reason at all to be this complex. There is no need to be so clever. You ended up outsmarting yourself. I love you guys to death, but please take a step backwards.
Final note: This release is intended to get the average consumer into the Blu-ray market. All you’re going to do is scare them away when they find out how complex your system is. Most discs aren’t near that complicated, folks. So, do stick with the format.
You don’t have to be in love with this film to appreciate what this high-definition release offers here. It’s hard to watch this film and not be captivated by the sheer beauty of its design even if you don’t really like this particular story. There were better films on the way at this point. One of my favorites, The Lion King, will get this treatment next year. There’s just a ton of exciting things happening on Disney Blu-ray. “Let’s start here.“