Even after the passage of just over twenty years, Beauty and the Beast remains one of the best animated films Disney has ever made. I knew this even before attending this rerelease, which, following the tremendous success of The Lion King 3D last fall, has been given the 3D treatment. But there was something about seeing it once again on the big screen that brought it home for me. Perhaps it was looking at the picture in a format larger than a television set for the first time in years. Or perhaps it was hearing the music emanating from a source other than my TV speakers or a set of earphones. Whatever the case, I watched the film as transfixed as I was when I first saw it as an eight-year-old boy in 1991. I then left with the satisfying knowledge that it hasn’t aged a day; like Disney perennials such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, it’s a film you can grow old with.
When I saw The Lion King back in September, I found myself in torn between two very different reactions. On the one hand, I appreciated reliving the story, becoming reacquainted with the characters, and once again experiencing the music and the animation. On the other hand, I was quite disappointed by the 3D conversion, which seemed to me the only reason the film was rereleased at all. When I learned of Beauty and the Beast 3D, I was wary, for I didn’t want a marketing ploy to diminish the power of its hand-drawn animation, the kind no computer could come close to achieving. Thankfully, my fears were put to rest. The technicians responsible for the conversion have seen to it that the process was immersive rather than gimmicky. It helped that I saw the film in a theater equipped with digital projectors that allow for bright, clean pictures.
Having said that, the 3D is unique, for it has been applied to images that began life as two-dimensional cels. This is obviously different from modern-day computer animated films, where objects are intentionally rendered to exhibit depth, even when projected in 2D. One of Walt Disney’s innovative touches on Snow White was the use of the multiplane camera system, in which drawings were layered one on top of the other and then moved separately towards or away from a camera mounted above them. The drawings in front would move faster than the ones in back, ensuring the illusion of depth. The opening shot of Beauty and the Beast, which used the multiplane system, is a slow zoom towards the Beast’s castle through tree branches and over a forest; because of the 3D conversion, each layer of drawings takes on the appearance of a theater flat, or a piece of plywood onto which scenery was painted for use live stage productions. This results in an uncanny storybook quality appropriate for the film.
In other instances, most notably the musical number “Be Our Guest,” more of an effort is made to make the characters and objects seem like dimensional beings. The moment in which the character of Lumiere is lifted into the air by a geyser of pink punch is surprisingly effective, as is a rapid tracking shot through a chorus line of living candlesticks as they raise their heads, eventually revealing Lumiere standing on a cake. The ballroom waltz of the title characters during the title song featured some fantastic aerial shots around a chandelier, all of which take on a new kind of grandeur with the 3D process. And there are many shots showcasing either rain or snow; because both represent a flurry of activity – visual noise, if you will – they seem the most dimensional of anything else in the film, making them the best post-conversion shots.
But why am I making this about the wonders of technology? Beauty and the Beast should be seen first and foremost for the sheer magic of its storytelling. Equal parts exuberant fun, heartfelt drama, and sweeping romance, its plot of a lonely beast who must love and be loved in return transcends the simple archetypes of the traditional fairy tale and becomes a lasting form of family entertainment. The characters are all individually realized so that none of them disappear into the background; this wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the vocal talents of Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Jerry Orbach, Angela Lansbury, David Ogden Stiers, and Richard White. The songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were Broadway caliber long before the film actually made the transition to Broadway. For Menken in particular, the film represents some of his best musical work – second only, perhaps, to what he would accomplish several years later with the tragically underrated The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The opening number, “Belle,” is surely one of the greatest in the history of musicals, stage or screen; apart from being rousing, melodically memorable, and lyrically clever, it does a fantastic job establishing the character it’s named after. It even has a thing or two to say about Gaston before a he’s given a song of his own, a hilariously wicked ode to his overinflated ego. “Be Our Guest” is a showstopping and catchy display of choreography and gravity-defying acrobatics. And then, of course, there’s the title song, which earned an Oscar for its touching sentiments on learning to love despite obvious differences. (“Human Again,” a deleted musical number restored for the film’s 2002 IMAX rerelease, has once again been omitted.) But I think the songs are only part of the reason why Beauty and the Beast has endured for all these years and will endure even in 3D; the filmmakers saw to it that the animation, story, and characters would appeal to all members of the family, not just young children.