"Beauty and the Beast" Diamond Edition: Beauty of a Movie, Beastly Bugs in Bonuses
One of the near-universal fairy tales is “Beauty and the Beast,” with the same basic story being told with variations in almost every major culture in the world. The earliest reference to a tale like “Beauty and the Beast” is a second-century Roman text by Lucius Apuleius, but it is based on an even earlier Greek text now lost to us. The most popular printed version of the tale was written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, whose account in French was published in 1757 and reprinted in English three years later. The tale has been a favorite of filmmakers since the dawn of cinema, with Jean Cocteau’s black-and-white version probably remaining the most popular film version until Disney’s 1991 animated musical adaptation. Disney has just re-released the movie on a Blu-ray Diamond Edition Combo Pack, with a truly glorious presentation of the movie paired with a thorough set of extras marred by some highly questionable decisions in presentation.
Walt Disney himself supposedly wanted to animate an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, but the project was never seriously explored since no story notes, sketches, or any other pre-production materials exist in the Disney Archives or the Animation Research Library. Perhaps there were other priorities on his mind, or the repetitive nature of the original French fairy tale proved too daunting to try and adapt. In any event, the story wasn’t attempted by Disney Feature Animation again until a massive upheaval in the Disney animation department, a seismic shift in Disney’s management team, and the incremental successes of films like The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company and The Little Mermaid.
Put simply, Beauty and the Beast is a success on nearly every level. The adaptation neatly transforms the fairy tale to a structure more amenable to a three-act screen story while also updating elements of it for more modern sensibilities. It is easy to fall for both the charming, intelligent Belle who finds herself adrift among people who don’t understand her, and for the Beast’s conflict between his underlying humanity and his sometimes vicious savagery. Their story is ably assisted by a terrific supporting cast, with the Beast’s household staff nearly stealing the show on more than one occasion and the movie’s true villain serving as a hissable, nasty presence that is still quite enjoyable to watch. It is quite remarkable that Beauty and the Beast could lade on almost a dozen supporting characters without making any of them feel unnecessary, extraneous, or shortchanged.
It helps that the animation is unparalleled and the voice casting is pitch perfect from start to finish. Paige O’Hara and Robby Benson both sell their characters admirably, while the sharp, witty writing for the supporting cast is vibrantly brought to life by the likes of Angela Lansbury as the head maid Mrs. Potts, David Ogden Stiers as the fussy majordomo Cogsworth, and a pre-Law & Order Jerry Orbach as the debonair and charming candelabra Lumiere. Beauty and the Beast was also groundbreaking in its use of CGI to assist hand-drawn animation techniques. While the hand-drawn animation of the movie is of unparalleled quality, Beauty and the Beast ambitiously used CGI, most notably during the ballroom dance sequence playing under the “Beauty and the Beast” musical number. It seems that this latest version is also using the updated graphics of the IMAX version; while the ballroom is still distinctively CGI, it doesn’t seem to stand out as strongly as it did when the movie was first released.
Last but not least, Beauty and the Beast is turned into a musical by an absolutely delightful score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken in Ashman’s last work before he passed away from AIDS just before the movie was released in 1991. Numerous critics at the time pointed out that the best Broadway musical that year was on a movie screen, and the songs of Beauty and the Beast have lost none of their ability to charm and delight. Like the very best movie musicals, Beauty and the Beast deploys its songs as integral parts of the plot, allowing characters to express such powerful emotions that they simply have to be released through song. There are at least three showstopping musical numbers in the film, beginning with the complex and layered number “Belle” that opens the film, establishing most of the human characters and laying a lot of the groundwork for what will follow. “Be Our Guest” is an absolutely glorious musical number made memorable by the Busby Berkeley-inspired choreography and the delightful lead vocal by Jerry Orbach. And finally, the title musical sequence is simply sublime, where song communicates more emotion than word or image ever could thanks to Angela Lansbury’s marvelous and gentle vocal performance. While these three musical numbers are the overt tentpoles, a quieter number like “Something There” is a textbook example of using song effectively in a movie to express the growing affection between Belle and the Beast. A late addition to the movie, the number beautifully bridges the gap between the movie’s first act and its finale.
All of the above result in a beautiful little gem of a movie that catches lightning in a bottle. Its achievements have not diminished in the nearly two decades since it was released, and if that doesn’t make it a classic that can stand proudly alongside Snow White, Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty, I’m not sure what would.
This Diamond Edition was eagerly anticipated by the film’s many fans, with the preview trailers on other Disney Blu-rays promising a sumptuous presentation of the movie in high-definition. The final result is as ravishingly beautiful as expected. Colors are vibrant and the extra resolution allows animation fans to really appreciate the fine linework of the animators. The truly glorious image is also mated to a DTS-HD 7.1 soundtrack that comfortably envelops the viewer in a richly detailed soundscape. While there is ample punch in the more dramatic moments, even the quieter ones make excellent use of the surround speakers to create a real sense of place, from the bustle of the town in “Belle” to the barely audible birdsong during “Something There.”
Like the previous Platinum Edition DVD release, we get three versions of the movie: the original theatrical cut, an extended edition that incorporates the musical number “Human Again” (which is entertaining and beautifully animated but only succeeds in making the movie longer rather than better), and the workprint of the movie that was screened at the New York Film Festival to wildly enthusiastic audience response. Unfortunately, while the last DVD (and the DVD included in this Diamond Edition combo pack) have the workprint in a proper anamorphic widescreen presentation, the Blu-ray opts to place the workprint in a tiny picture-in-picture window that plays over the theatrical cut. I would believe that the rough-cut elements (some of which were little more than storyboard animatics) might not look very good in high-definition, but considering its positive reception at the New York Film Festival, where all those flaws and unfinished bits of animation were on film and projected dozens of feet high, I don’t find that a very compelling excuse for the downgrade.
As with all of Disney’s multi-disc Blu-ray sets, the bonus features for Beauty and the Beast are superb and comprehensive, marred only by some presentation issues. The excellent and informative commentary track by co-directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale and producer Don Hahn is recycled from the last DVD release; about the only complaint I have is that it took a bit of searching to find the right subtitle track, which helpfully identifies each speaker. The Blu-ray also includes a “sing-along”/karaoke mode for the movie. Disc 1 also has two featurettes: “Composing a Classic” with producer Don Hahn, composer Alan Menken, and Disney historian Richard Kraft; and “Broadway Beginnings” about the Beauty and the Beast stage show, with commentary from many of the stars who have been in the production and several of the crew that brought it to life. The former is much more interesting than the latter, even if it recycles some information found in the other bonus features. The disc also includes an alternate opening and a deleted scene that have never been released before. The alternate opening is really from the aborted first attempt to adapt the fairy tale, when British animators Richard and Jill Purdum were attached to direct, while the deleted scene features Belle meeting the household staff that works in the library. I have to confess that these items are of interest only in a historical sense, since I found I could only bear to sit through about half of each of them. The alternate opening is abysmal—drawn-out, dull, and spending far too much time on setup. It’s no wonder that the studio heads pulled the plug on this version as soon as they saw it. The deleted scene is also insufferably long and not very funny. Both are everything that the movie is not. The last bonus on disc 1 is a music video of the title song by Jordin Sparks, who has a decent enough voice to carry the tune before she’s drowned out by synthetic drums and Disney’s typically over-produced teeny-bopper synthetic music product.
The backbone of the Blu-ray disc of bonus features is “Beyond Beauty: The Untold Stories Behind the Making of Beauty and the Beast.” The core documentary is split into six chapters and runs for about an hour, delivering exactly on its promise by presenting a lot of information on the making of the movie that is not on the commentary track or on the previous version of the DVD. The other impressive feature of the documentary is the seamless branching points, where a prompt will allow viewers to digress off the main documentary to explore something in more depth. The branches are almost seamlessly integrated into the feature, with invisible transitions into them and nearly invisible transitions back once they’re finished. The extra features are quite eclectic, ranging from a set of Disney’s earliest Laugh-O-Gram silent short films, an extended profile/appreciation of the late Howard Ashman, and even a short history of animation; all told, they add more than two hours more of bonuses to the feature, and all of them are worth at least one viewing. Unfortunately, someone made the astonishingly idiotic decision to disable the rewind and fast-forward buttons during this entire feature. If you miss a branch or wanted to hear what someone said again, you have no recourse but to start the entire chapter over and wait. This was mind-bogglingly stupid decision from a usability standpoint, and while it doesn’t affect the value of the content at all, it does make watching it a far more frustrating experience than it needed to be. There is an index page available via the Blu-ray pop-up menu, which makes partial amends for this fundamentally broken feature, but it is at best a half-hearted and incomplete solution. Some of the earlier Platinum Editions may have had more complex navigation than they should have, but words fail me in describing how infuriatingly moronic this “feature” is.
A number of the older bonus features have been carried over from the Platinum Edition DVD, although by no means all. We get an early presentation reel, an alternate version of “Be Our Guest” sung to Maurice instead of Belle, an alternate score to the ending transformation scene, and a different version of the “Human Again” song. The older music video of Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson’s pop cover of the title song is also found here (which I always found extraneous in comparsion to the one in the movie). Bafflingly, the “Story Behind the Story” feature, where various Disney stars describe other Disney films, was also ported over rather than any of the other behind-the-scenes material from the older release, which was good and often covered different ground than the “Beyond Beauty” documentary. Finally, there are 2 new games for the family which frankly aren’t very good at all.
The second disc also highlights another navigational annoyance on this new set: both discs have almost identical menus, “helpfully” pointing out when a feature is on the other disc. This is confusing and sometimes frustrating, since you can plow through entire sub-menus only to discover nearly everything is elsewhere, no matter which disc you’re watching. It’s even more frustrating when the top-level menu recommends a feature that’s not on the disc in the player. Like the index menu for “Beyond Beauty,” the disc’s offer to eject discs is a rotten solution to a fundamentally broken usability problem. It seems that most of the lessons in good DVD menu design that were thrashed out over time must be re-learned all over again in the Blu-ray era.
Also included with the Diamond Edition is a standard definition DVD of just the movie, again with all 3 versions, the audio commentary track, and the sing-along mode. The digital restoration for the Blu-ray has also had some effect on the DVD version, since colors are a bit brighter than they were on the Platinum Edition (click the thumbnail at above-left for a comparison, or check this comparison from the closing of “Be Our Guest”).
THE COMPANION BOOK
For those seeking even more behind-the-scenes information, the companion volume Tale as Old as Time: The Art and Making of Beauty and the Beast comes highly recommended. Without the time and narrative limitations that a documentary film imposes, author Charles Solomon covers even more ground than “Beyond Beauty,” digging much further into the background of both the original tale and the upheaval in the Disney animation studios in the 1980’s. Much of the historical information in this review comes from the text, and only scratches the surface of Solomon’s research. There is also surprisingly little duplicated information between the text and the bonus features on the DVD, especially since Solomon speaks to many more of the crew members from the movie, meaning he is also able to get many different participants’ takes on the same events. Of course, this also reveals the occasional contradiction or difference of opinion, which is always a risk in any kind of oral history. He is also much more accurate about timelines (for instance, Howard Ashman passed away in March 1991, six months before the workprint’s debut at the New York Film Festival; “Beyond Beauty” seems to suggest Ashman was alive to find out about the audiences’ reaction at the festival). To his credit, Solomon doesn’t always paint a rosy picture of the production, documenting its many troubles, conflicts, and frictions fairly and without rancor, although in some cases, the resolution to those conflicts only appear in the “Beyond Beauty” documentary (such as how scripter Linda Woolverton and the animation team reconciled their entirely different approaches to writing for the screen).
Solomon’s text is well-researched and very easy to read while still being fairly dense with information. However, the book doubles its value by including numerous pieces of artwork from the movie’s production. It’s far more convenient to page through a book to look at art than it is to page through a DVD interface, and Tale as Old as Time is lavishly illustrated with sketches, character designs, background paintings, storyboards, and more. He also includes a chapter each on adapting the movie for the Broadway stage (not sugarcoating the critical drubbing it received despite enthusiastic audience reception), and on converting the movie to IMAX and 3-D. If you’re serious enough of a fan to sit through all the bonus features on the Diamond Edition Blu-ray, you should probably also start saving up to purchase a copy of this book as well.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is perhaps the quintessential Disney fairy tale movie, certainly for modern audiences. With The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast anchors the “Disney Renaissance” of the 1990’s, but the film’s runaway success turns out to have been both blessing and curse for Walt Disney Feature Animation. While the movie was an unqualified success creatively, critically, and at the box office, that same success led to a more rapid production schedule where two films would be made concurrently, splitting the A-list talent that all collaborated on Beauty and the Beast. It also set a gold standard that arguably no Disney animated film afterwards has been able to meet. I think the only one that can seriously compete with Beauty and the Beast is Aladdin; for that matter, I think Beauty and the Beast outdoes many of the fairy tale movies by Walt himself. It became the archetypal Disney Princess movie, and may have ultimately been responsible for launching that merchandising phenomenon as well.
However, nothing in the history afterwards takes away from the substantial cinematic successes of Beauty and the Beast, and the high-definition presentation of the movie itself provides ample enough reason to re-purchase it. If not for the unfortuate navigational problems, the bonus features on the new Diamond Edition would set a new standard for home video presentation as well.