I’ll just come right out and say it: Beauty and the Beast is so good that its unnecessary conversion to 3D doesn’t matter a whit. It represents the pinnacle of creative techniques Walt Disney pioneered five decades earlier, before computers and hand-wringing suits all but destroyed them forever. Its story is a masterpiece of efficiency and emotion; it wastes not a single moment, and earns every giggle and tear elicited from the audience. With the transition away from traditional animation – coupled with the loss of songwriter Howard Ashman, from which Disney never fully recovered – the conditions that created it no longer exist. It is the last hurrah of a bygone era, revitalized by modern sensibilities that ironically heralded in a new era for animation. We will never see its like again.
That’s high praise for a movie that seemingly embodies the same formula as dozens of Disney fairy tale adaptations before and since. Its Broadway-style musical numbers and easily digestible family messages make it a quick target for hipsters, and Disney has never been shy about exploiting it to within an inch of its overmarketed life (hence this re-release). But beneath the posturing and criticism, the movie itself possesses unique qualities that elevate it above its contemporaries.
For starters, it was the first Disney movie to really understand what it means to be an outsider. The company ethos emphasizes community over individualism; its misunderstood heroes seek only acceptance from the collective (which eventually recognizes their qualities and embraces them). Belle, on the other hand, has no desire to earn the approval of others. She’s lonely and misunderstood, but she never tries to make others understand her. Her validation comes from the Beast and the other “freaks” in the castle, where she is first imprisoned but later sees as an escape from the small-minded banality of her village. The ostensibly “normal” villagers, on the other hand, belittle her at every turn, and eventually march on the castle to kill the Beast. You don’t see many torch-bearing mobs in other Disney films, nor do you feel the fear of the collective that they represent.
The bad guy carries similar weight. Gaston looks and acts like no other Disney villain before him. Chief animator Andreas Deja lent him many physical qualities of classic Disney heroes – compare his square jaw and wide chest to the narrow features of, say, Peter Pan’s Captain Hook or Hercules’s Hades – along with traditionally heroic features such as great hunting skills and the desire to raise a family. His cruelty belies his attractive face, further emphasizing the film’s message about inner beauty. More importantly, he’s small-minded. Most Disney villains plot grand schemes for world domination. Gaston’s sins are those of the school bully: enabled by the people around him and embodying the narcissism of a big fish in a small pond. God forbid, none of us has ever known a Maleficent or Ursula in real life. Everyone knows a Gaston, and that commonality makes his thoroughly rotten nature all the more chilling.
Beauty and the Beast blends those elements to its classic fairy tale story perfectly, along with some slightly overplayed feminism and the now-standard helpings of grown-up sophistication. They operate seamlessly alongside the gorgeous musical numbers from Ashman and Alan Menken. Many of the songs serve as pivotal moments in the narrative, such as the charming “Belle,” which turns messy plot exposition into a beautiful summary of key character information. Those storytelling acrobatics ensure that the plot moves forward briskly, with no wasted moments or lag time.
They come on top of an exceptionally strong technical production, featuring some of the most beautiful images ever seen in a Disney film. Glen Keane’s legendary work on The Beast tops a stunning array of character designs, enhanced by classical animation tools that no one uses anymore. No mistakes mar its surface, and the hand-drawn animation grants it a timeless quality that holds up year after year. (Ironically, the only elements that have dated – the famous ballroom sequence and a few others – are the ones where the animators used computer animation.) Compare it to the recent release of The Lion King, where flaws in the animation such as shifting eye color belie that film’s status as a perceived superior.
Indeed, with so much in Beauty and the Beast’s favor, one wonders why 3D is needed at all. The format does no damage to the original image, and actually accentuates the multi-plane photography used in its production. On the other hand, said photography didn’t actually require any enhancement. It worked quite well when Walt (or the Fleischer Brothers, depending on whose side you’re on) came up with it in the 1930s, and no amount of funky glasses can change that. It lends the re-release an undue sense of a cash grab… though considering how much money The Lion King 3D raked in last fall, one can hardly blame The Mouse for following through.
And regardless of such issues, the gimmick helped put it back on the big screen where it belongs. This beautiful film makes 3D look better than it ever has: the movie enriches the format, not the other way around. Twenty years on, it stands as an ideal example of what the most famous animation studio in the world can do when everything comes together as it should. Beauty and the Beast is the apex of an art form, a justly celebrated classic, and the best animated movie of any sort ever put on screen at any time. What can 3D do to improve on that?