BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a nostalgic feast, drawing shamelessly on the best traditions of screen animation and American musical theater and film. Thoroughly derivative but thoroughly charming.
Belle (Paige O'Hara) is a beautiful young woman in a small French town who dreams of escape, fending off advances from the handsome, but arrogant and chauvinistic Gaston (Richard White). Belle's father is lost in a dark wood and seeks refuge in an enchanted castle, lorded over by the Beast (Robby Benson), a spoiled young prince transformed by an enchantress into a hideous monster. The spell has transformed his castle into a dank, gloomy lair and his servants into household bric-a-brac. Enraged that Maurice has violated the castle grounds, the Beast locks him in a dungeon. When her father's
horse returns home without him, Belle sets off in pursuit and finds her way to the castle, where the Beast agrees to let her father leave if she will remain in his stead--forever.
The familiar narrative is strengthened by the independent, self-assured character of Belle. Unlike Disney heroines from Snow White through Ariel, Belle is smart, knows what she wants, and doesn't spend her time pining away for the love of a handsome prince. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken propel the plot and character development along with their tuneful, witty and textured songs. As they enrich the palette of the narrative, they also invite comparison with some of the past glories of the American musical theater--from the opening numbers of Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me (the teeming "Belle" opener), the love soliloquies from South Pacific (the touching "Something There" soliloquies of Belle and the Beast), the "Shall We Dance?" waltz from The King and I (the soaring "Beauty and the Beast" waltz), to crowd-pleasing production numbers from Jerry Herman's Hello Dolly and Mame
(the boisterous "Be Our Guest"). For its 2002 IMAX theatrical rerelease, the film was restored and remixed, and a new scene added: "Human Again," which features the enchanted housewares envisioning their return to human form, was written and storyboarded but never animated. It was included in the stage production, and became an audience favorite. The sequence now appears about an hour into the film.
All this, though, would mean nothing if the animation were not of a standard to compare with the rest of the elements. It is. Using computer wizardry to simulate live-action film techniques like dollies, tracks and pans, the animation succeeds in creating an uncannily realistic world. The filmmakers have used considerable depth of field, permitting action to occur on many levels of the frame, from background to foreground, and to move, not only horizontally, but also back and forth from the camera eye. The camera sweeps above forests and down into castle chambers, and races around
characters in 360 degree tracks. This is catnip for the kids, and should keep even the most jaded adults awake for the film's blessedly crisp 84 minutes.
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