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‘Beauty and the Beast’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 22, 1991


Gary Trousdale;
Kirk Wise
Robby Benton;
Paige O'Hara;
Richard White;
Jerry Orbach;
Angela Lansbury
General audience
Original Score; Song

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Disney's new full-length animated feature, "Beauty and the Beast," is more than a return to classic form, it's a delightfully satisfying modern fable, a near-masterpiece that draws on the sublime traditions of the past while remaining completely in sync with the sensibility of its time.

This is a giant step forward for Disney's animation unit -- and a quantum leap past its blandly diverting work in "The Little Mermaid." For the first time in a Disney cartoon, you don't feel as if you've slipped into a time warp. The sense of humor, even the obligatory moral subtext, seems fresh. There's even a kind of impudence in the comedy; you don't feel clobbered with wholesomeness. And yet nothing is lost in bringing a contemporary spirit to this familiar tale of love triumphing over physical imperfection. The storytelling is brisk and engaging, the animation imaginative and deeply textured, the music and the production numbers sublime. Let's not mince words -- it's great.

The animators -- led by producer Don Hahn and directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise -- have truly outdone themselves, not just in the richness of the visual detail they've provided but in the deeper pleasures of characterization and conception. It's been a long time since a Disney animation project has had such an invigorating directorial style. Throughout the film, the creators give a startling perspective on the action; our eye is always excited, always surprised by what's put up on the screen. This picture was made by people who know movies and movie history.

The opening segment, in which a spoiled prince is transformed into a beast who can only be rescued by love, visually evokes the opening shots of "Citizen Kane." And in the musical numbers, particularly "Be My Guest," the filmmakers have referenced -- and then topped -- the lavish eccentricity of Busby Berkeley. Added to that, the music -- by the composing team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who also worked on "The Little Mermaid" -- is the most memorable since "Lady and the Tramp."

The main characters, too, are more compelling than in recent years. The heroine, Belle (whose voice is provided by Paige O'Hara), isn't insipid and Barbie-doll cute the way the Little Mermaid was. She's a more worldly girl than Ariel, a bookworm, with gumption and a mind of her own. Physically, she seems more mature, more womanly and less blandly asexual. Her suitor, the handsome but conceited Gaston (read by Richard White), has an almost overbearing physicality; everything about him is comically exaggerated and satirized to the point that you feel as if the cleft in his chin might swallow you whole. The chorus of town beauties that follows him around is hilariously over-ripe too -- more like Vargas girls than the usual Disney dames.

The real stars of the show, though, are the supporting players, in particular the dashy, magical candelabra, Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), and the warmhearted talking teapot, Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury). The model for Lumiere seems to have been Maurice Chevalier, and the idea is so choice, and so deftly executed, that it places him immediately among the top rank of Disney characters. Though less inspired, Mrs. Potts is indelibly realized. Their numbers are the movie's best.

If the movie has a flaw, it's the Beast. Perhaps the image of the glorious Beast in Jean Cocteau's 1946 version of the classic French fairy tale is too vividly perfect to allow anything but a literal transcription, but this Beast, who is drawn to resemble a sort of scowling bison, seems completely lacking in poetry. He's a lunk without either mystery or pathos. And for the character to earn our affection despite his ugliness -- and to appear deserving of Belle's love -- he needs some of both. As it is, he's precisely what the rest of the movie isn't -- dimensionless.

Though this is a major component, it's not a major drag on our enjoyment. The rest of the film is nearly flawless. And the marriage of computers to the time-tested and painstaking hand-drawn animation process only enhances our amazement. What "Beauty and the Beast" gives us is the best of the old and the best of the new. We watch the screen with constant wonder.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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