''Beauty and the Beast'' is the best animated feature the Disney Studios have done since ''The Little Mermaid.'' It is also one of the best cartoon features ever made.
It is, without quibble, brilliant. The score is bright, the cartooning inspired and the characterizations flawless.
The score is worthy of Broadway. Actually, it is better than many we have heard there. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who collaborated on the score for ''The Little Mermaid,'' have contributed a score that is in every way as delightful as their first film assignment.
Some of the numbers are done Broadway style. Some are full-blown production numbers, but then Ashman and Menken knew what they were doing. It was they who did the score for ''Little Shop of Horrors.''
Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who did the direction, have also incorporated a few salutes to Hollywood. Look closely and you will see send-ups of Esther Williams, the Busby Berkeley musicals and even ''Frankenstein,'' granddaddy of the Hollywood horror film. There is even a brief tribute to ''Fantasia,'' the 1940 Disney classic.
The voices are excellent. Paige O'Hara speaks for Belle, the village beauty who falls in love with the beast, really a prince on whom a curse has been leveled.
Robby Benson speaks for the beast, but you may have trouble recognizing his voice. He is that good.
Just as good is Richard White, who speaks for Gaston, a handsome, conceited individual who takes all the scenes in which he is included.
Well, not the final scene. Gaston turns really bad in that one, but up to that time he is a delight, a self-loving, hammy buffoon who sings about eating to get large, and at this point is ''roughly the size of a barge.''
''Beauty and the Beast'' is suitable for the entire family. There is something here for adults, and there is a lot here for children. There is one scary scene, one in which wolves attack Belle and her father, but it is no worse than the heart-in-the-box scene from ''Snow White'' and may be considerably less scary than the ''Pinocchio'' scene in which runaway boys are turned into donkeys.
We survived those. Today's children should survive the wolf scene in the new film.
Angela Lansbury does the voice of Mrs. Potts, the castle keeper who is turned into a teapot at the same time the Prince is transformed. Jerry Orbach, Rex Everhart, Jo Anne Worley and David Ogden Stiers do other voices.
Get to it. Take the kids, and if you don't have any around, see it for yourself. It is unlikely that anyone will be disappointed with ''Beauty and the Beast.''
There is one sad note to all this. Ashman, a former Baltimorean, died last March at the age of 41. The film is dedicated to him, at close. He was a giant talent.
''Beauty and the Beast'' opens here today.
''Beauty and the Beast'' **** The Disney version of the classic fairy tale in which a village beauty falls in love with a beast, not knowing that the beast is really a handsome prince.
VOICES: Paige O'Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, Angela Lansbury, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti.
DIRECTORS: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes