'BEAUTY and the BEAST' Stunning animation fills characters with life

November 22, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

By the time you read this you will already know that the new Disney film "Beauty and the Beast" is quite good; what remains is only this question: how good?And here's the answer: very good.

This is certainly Disney's best animated feature since "Peter Pan" in the mid-'50s, but it will actually put most animation buffs in mind of the classic "high" Disney period of the late '30s with its rich and voluptuous imagery, its almost medieval palette and its aggressive use of the multiplane camera, which takes us into the depth of the compositions and gives the figures a sense of life and weight.

pTC But it has another virtue new to the design: It is the most dynamic animated film ever made, and the prance of its camera, the sense of penetration into its action, the brilliantly paced editing pyrotechnics give it a crackle of life far more abundant than any feature that's come before.

Yet at the same time the story materials have been updated subtly enough to give them resonance to our time. The beauty, Belle, for example, is no passive fairy tale princess, but a real live girl, with a spunky personality and her own private agenda. In one of the movie's cleverest touches, the villain Gaston turns out to be exactly the figure who has been the hero in such stories for the past thousand years: the handsome huntsman, with Arnold Schwarzenegger's bulging physique and an aquiline profile and casual willingness to do violence.

But of course at the foundation of his personality is something that is merely hinted at in conventional star personas: an overweening vanity. He's in love with the face in the mirror, and the pathology of male vanity is a very '90s idea. Nobody caught on to us before.

And then there's the beast, that avatar of the crippled male sensibility, of brutishness cut with agony. The Disney animators have envisioned him as a sort of werebuffalo, Homo bovinus, hulking and bent, his face a Grand Teton of brow ridges and tufts. He has animal muscularity and power, but the eyes truly have it: somehow the Disney animators get the sparkle of life and the glint of pain in them.

The story remains the same argument for soul over appearance and its corollary belief that in all creatures there lurks at least some salving capacity for love. As engineered by Disney's writers from the classic, Belle this time agrees to give herself to the beast to spare her captured father and as she lives with him (chastely), she falls in love with the gentle, tortured man hiding under that horrid face. The new addition to the story is copped from the old Frankenstein tradition: The jealous Gaston rallies the villagers to assault the castle and kill the beast.

I should add that, like "The Little Mermaid" that preceded it, "Beauty and the Beast" is conceived as a musical. And it's the best kind of show music: the numbers, by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, move far beyond their technical virtuosity (they are very clever) to expand and actually enhance the characters. The best features the entourage of the Beast's haunted castle -- the candelabra and the clock among them -- recapitulating the history of the musical number from Busby Berkeley through Esther Williams.

The movie does lack the nerve of the original Disney films; it hasn't quite the spirit of darkness, the truly horrifying edge that some of the classics had. There's no figure comparable in charismatic evil to the titanic pantheon of vile mothers that Walt Himself conjured up over the years, from the Wicked Witch in "Snow White" on to Cruella DeVille in "101 Dalmations," what with Gaston being more of an opera-boffo bad guy than a true spirit of malfeasance.

And the movie is something of a cop-out, isn't it? The beast, of course, is freed from his spell and turns out to be a somewhat conventionally handsome young man, a blond Eric Roberts type. But that somewhat reduces the message that beauty is of the soul and not the face. It's easy to kiss a frog if you know he'll turn into a prince, but suppose he turns into a prince who looks like a frog? Try to live happily ever after that!

'Beauty and the Beast'

Starring the voices of Robby Benson and Paige O'Hara.

Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.

Released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Rated G.

****

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