While Disney animation has been losing ground somewhat over the past few years, the late 80's and early 90's provided some of the studio's most delightful and enchanting works ("Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast" and "Lion King"). These films dazzled - and continue to impress - audiences by combining beautiful animation with a superb mixture of sincere emotion, comedy, drama and adventure. These films are timeless entertainment, charming both children and adults alike.
"Beauty and the Beast" was directed by the team of Kirk Wise (who recently was one of the supervisors of the US version of Hayao Miyazaki's animated masterpiece, "Spirited Away") and Gary Trousdale, who achieve their finest work here (although the dark "Hunchback of Notre Dame" was very good). The story is already widely known: Belle (voiced by Paige O'Hara) arrives at a menacing castle to save her trapped father, but ends up taking his place as the prisoner of a melancholy and easily angered Beast (voiced by Robby Benson). Saddened, she manages to make the most of her stay, kept company by a series of household items brought to life. While the beast may seem terrifying, he believes that Belle may be the one who finds the love in his heart and break the curse that turned him and the other inhabitants of the castle into the creatures they are.
While the classic story has been translated in an appropriate and enjoyable manner, there are several other aspects of this animated production that take it to another level. Although the consistent singing of most of the studio's animated productions has start to become somewhat of a cliche, the songs of "Beauty and the Beast" - especially "Be Our Guest" - rank as some of the best ever to grace an animated film. The voice actors, especially leads Paige O'Hara and Robby Benson, give personality and life to the Belle and the Beast. While the animation here was spectacular for the time ("Beauty and the Beast" was one of the first films to use computer animation), the voice acting of both the leads and supporting cast lift the characters off the screen and make them truly memorable. Even the "sidekick" characters in this film really get their own chance to shine and don't seem thrown in simply to create a "cute" character that would make a potentially good "toy" later on.
Overall, while the explosion of computer animation has really made for leaps in the quality of the presentation, it's still the story (realized in the "Toy Story" series) that counts. While "Beauty and the Beast" certainly isn't a new tale, the animators succeeded in creating a fresh, moving and energetic retelling. One of Disney's best.
VIDEO: Remarkably, Disney has attempted to fit all three full-length versions (the special edition, theatrical cut and work-in-progress edition, all in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen) on disc one. While seamless branching does not seem to be used, I certainly guess that some method (which seems as if it would have to be rather complex) was used to try and compress all three versions (over four hours, plus other odds/ends such as animated menus) onto the same DVD and have the result be as nice looking as it is here.
As for all three versions of the picture, they all do manage to boast very good - if not flawless - picture quality. Faults on the work-in-progress edition are to be expected, as this early version of the film combines near-complete scenes with rough drawings and images in other stages of completion. The theatrical cut is the film as it was shown when released in 1991, while the special edition version (shown in many IMAX theaters early in 2002) offers a version of the film with improved background and general detail as well as an entertaining new song sequence ("Human Again"). While some had some concerns with the animation on the stories-tall IMAX screen, I was amazed with the results of the transfer of the film to the IMAX format.
Both the special edition and theatrical versions of the film offered fine image quality, although the added details of the Special Edition boasted mildly richer visual experience. Sharpness and detail were quite pleasant on all three versions of the picture, as well.
Still, some flaws with all three versions should be discussed. While nothing very irritating or even particularly noticable, there were some artifacts visible in a few scenes, which may be related to the space concerns. On a positive note, there were no print flaws to be seen, nor any instances of edge enhancement.
Colors looked spectacular, and were certainly the highlight of the image quality. The film's warm, vivid color palette was beautifully rendered, with no smearing or other faults. While not quite flawless overall, I still felt that all three transfers (especially the new special edition version) offered a lovely presentation of this wonderfully animated film.
SOUND: Disney offers "Beauty and the Beast" with a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation that, while not groundbreaking, still seemed awfully enjoyable, nonetheless. The surrounds are not put to a great deal of use, and mainly exist here (aside from a couple of sound effects) to reinforce some of the music. While the use of the rear speakers is not terribly distinct, the front speakers certainly made up for it, offering the score and songs with a remarkably full-bodied and crisp sound. Dialogue and sound effects also remained clear and natural sounding. All three versions are presented in 5.1.
MENUS: Both discs offer enjoyable, if rather basic, animated menus. The three different versions of the film on disc one also have their own specific menu. The packaging is different from what Disney usually offers: both discs are located in a single-disc case, with an additional flap to hold the second disc. The front of the sleeve also opens out to reveal the set's contents. This front flap thankfully closes and keeps closed with a bit of velcro.
EXTRAS: The main supplement on the first disc is a commentary from directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who are accompanied by producer Don Hahn and composer Alan Menken. The four have been recorded together for this commentary, which is only available on the special edition version of the film. Trousdale, Wise and Hahn have provided commentaries in the past ("Atlantis") and are often quite animated and funny. The three (Menken only rarely pops in) cover most aspects of the production, discussing the actors who were brought in to provide the voices, the changes for the special edition, the story and some obstacles along the way. The three are energetic and drop in an occasional joke, making for a fun and informative track that even kids may enjoy.
Rounding out the supplements on the first disc are a batch of "Sneak Peeks" (including one for the upcoming IMAX SE of "The Lion King", but surprisingly, none for Disney's upcoming "Treasure Planet"); a sing-along subtitle track for the film and an interactive game (which unlocks an area of the features on disc 2).
The second disc has three main sections (along with a fourth, "The West Wing", which is locked). The first section offers a wealth of features that starts off with a featurette on the film's special edition re-release. This featurette offers interviews with the two directors, Roy Disney and other members of the creative staff, who all discuss the changes for the special edition and the ideas behind the new release. "The Broadway Musical" offers a featurette on the Broadway production, as well as costume design and publicity galleries for the show.
Moving forward, a "Release and Reaction" section offers a few featurettes and galleries related to both the theatrical and re-releases of the film. "A High Profile Preview" is the first item on the list and talks about the premiere of the "Work-In-Progress" version at the New York Film Festival in 1991. "Release and Reaction" is a short featurette that simply goes over the high praise the film recieved upon release. "Awards" discusses the awards notice the film recieved that year, including Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. "Howard Ashman: In Memoriam" is a moving and emotional look back at the career and life of composer Howard Ashman, who was ill during the production (there is a dedication to the composer at the end of the film).
"Trailers and TV Spots" includes both the theatrical and re-relase trailers for the film, along with four TV spots and an intro by producer Don Hahn. Rounding out the "Release and Reaction" section are publicity galleries for the original theatrical release and the large-format re-release of the picture, as well as a "Beauty and the Beast" music video, performed by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson.
The "Tricks of the Trade" section offers a very interesting featurette on the film's early use of computers to aid in the animation and a camera move test, which takes a look at the early development of the "Ballroom" sequence. The "Animation" section starts off with a general featurette on developing the characters and their appearance, with interviews from the directors and many of the animators. "Animation Tests, Roughs and Clean-Ups" gives viewers a chance to see the early phase of the animation and learn more about the merger of styles that must occur, as many animators must seamlessly work on one scene. The "Animation" section finishes off with a pencil version of the "Transformation" sequence and a featurette about ace animator Glen Keane.
"The Characters" section offers a featurette on the importance of creating engaging, memorable characters and merging them with an interesting story. The directors and creative crew also talk about trying to balance out the Beast's character and structure the characters in general for this particular story. This section also offers a featurette on casting the film's vocal talent and a gallery of character art.
The "Production Design" section opens with a featurette on creating the look and mood of the visuals once the story was completed. Also included in this section are image galleries related to both layouts and backgrounds as well as concept art and design.
"Development" offers a featurette on the lengthy development of the project and its translation from story to animated feature, as well as an early presentation reel for "Beauty and the Beast".
"Story" begins with a featurette on "Finding the Story" and continues with an alternate version of "Be Our Guest" and an early version of "Human Again". The "Music" section offers a featurette that provides a general overview of the work of the film's composers and music department, while also providing a version of "The Transformation" with alternate score. Rounding out the section is the early version of "Human Again" once again, only this time with an introduction by composer Alan Menken instead of producer Don Hahn. The first main section of the second disc also includes a very short "Origins of Beauty and the Beast" featurette that talks about the history of the tale.
Moving onto the next main section (this one is "Mrs. Potts"), we are first presented with a nearly 30-minute "making of", which is hosted by (yikes.) Celine Dion. While the inclusion of this extra is appreciated, the featurette generally goes over the same ground as all of the other, smaller featurettes located elsewhere on the second disc. Rounding out this section are: an interactive game that tells viewers what character their personality most resembles, a series of short featurettes about the history of the stories of seven popular Disney tales and finally - once again - we get the Celine Dion/Peabo Bryson music vid for the title song.
The final main section offers more kid-friendly features (although kids still will likely enjoy the rest of what disc 2 has to offer). Aside from another interactive game and music video, there's also "Disney's Animation Magic", which is a fun backstage tour of Disney's animation studios.
Finally, there's "The West Wing", which can be ventured into (try to get in twice), but to gain access, you must need a code given after completing the interactive game included on the first disc.
Final Thoughts: "Beauty and the Beast" remains one of Disney's more magical animated features, combining a classic story with excellent animation, superb characters, great songs and terrific voice work. Disney's 2-DVD edition does not match the remarkable "Snow White" release, but still boasts an incredible set of supplements and a top-notch presentation of three different versions of the film. A must-see DVD release from the studio.