I’ve loved Beauty and the Beast for twenty years. My grandmother bought me the VHS when I was a kid, I went to see the IMAX re-release as a teenager, I bought the special edition DVD later that year, then I bought the special edition Blu-ray back in 2010, and have been expecting the 3D version ever since I saw the opening number at Comic-Con back in 2008. I’m not 3D’s champion and Beauty and the Beast doesn’t need a 3D post-conversion. It’s perfect the way it is, but I’m willing to put on a pair of 3D glasses if it means I get to see it on the big screen again. But is it possible to improve upon perfection and if not, does that lower the quality?
The renaissance of Disney animation (wonderfully shown in the must-see documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty) slowly began to grow after the The Black Cauldron flopped in 1985, and truly blossomed once the studio reached The Little Mermaid in 1989. Some will argue that the renaissance reached its apex in 1994 with The Lion King (re-released in 3D last year), and commercially that’s true. It’s the highest grossing of all the 90s Disney movies, but it’s not the best. The plot is fine but it lacks the grandeur of a storybook tale. The songs are memorable, but they’re not on par with what Alan Menken was able to do with the late, great Howard Ashman on Mermaid and Beauty.
After a brief prologue with a wonderful stained-glass exposition a vain prince became the Beast (voiced by Robby Benson), we get the fantastic “Belle”. It’s a number that would be right at home in a stage musical, but the animation adds wonderful sweeping visuals set against a storybook style. The number not only sets up Belle’s character (Paige O’Hara), but perfectly sets up the overall theme and foreshadows what makes the town so oppressive to our heroine. But most of all and most importantly, it’s a wonderful song. Ashman and Menken never talk down to their audience in their lyrics and that’s why the songs have no problem throwing in words like “provincial” and “expectorating”. The visuals and the tone of the song help children understand what’s happening and the adults can appreciate the craft.
There’s also the simple message every kid can take home: people who are ugly on the outside can be good on the inside and people who are beautiful on the outside can be ugly on the inside. As an adult, it’s still interesting to see how the movie approaches the superficial. Exploring that approach may seem ridiculously high-minded for a movie with singing dishware, but when it comes to the human characters, it’s neat to see how the filmmakers approached Belle. The town is baffled by her not because she reads books. They think she’s odd because she’s beautiful and she doesn’t need to spend time developing her mind when there’s a handsome stud like Gaston (Richard White) waiting in the wings.
As for the Beast, he’s the anti-Prince Charming. The animators decided to base Gaston on a grotesque version of what a “prince charming” character should look like, and they make Beast work to become a Prince Charming whose inner beauty will earn him back his outer beauty. I don’t remember if Beast scared me as a child, but he doesn’t start out as warm and cuddly. He’s not misunderstood; he has a terrible temper and while it may be a result of loneliness and self-pity, it’s still a trait he has to overcome. Furthermore, the movie starts out with the servants unquestionable accepting that Belle will be the woman to break the spell. To them, she is a function rather than a person and it takes the meaning out of “falling in love.” Beast’s love only becomes real at the end when he has to let her go and accept that he’ll never break the spell. True love means sacrifice, not simply proving you’ve learned how to dance in a CGI ballroom.
Again, kids will understand the basic message, and they’ll also be drawn in by the animation. Beauty and the Beast was always a gorgeous movie and the recent upgrade to HD (made on the must-own Blu-ray) makes it look even better. The CGI ballroom sequence should feel dated and if you focus on the pillars on the background you’ll see how CG doesn’t age well. But your eyes won’t wander to the background because the scene is so well-choreographed and skillfully blended with the 2D animation. The computer animation always supported the scene rather than overshadow it.
3D post-conversion presents the same challenge of trying to enhance the scene rather than providing a distraction. Last year, The Lion King did an adequate job of showing how Disney’s 3D would add depth to the picture but not throw objects out of the screen. The 3D effect works much better in Beauty and the Beast because it feels better suited to the material. When the movie opens and we push into the stained glass portraits, the flora in the foreground adds a kind of “pop-up” effect, so the original storybook quality now becomes a pop-up storybook. Most of the movie has this subtle quality, but the conversion process really shines during “Be Our Guest”. There are so many planes working in that number with the combination of chorus lines and Busby Berkeley-style shots, and the skillful use of 3D prevents the re-release from feeling like a half-hearted cash-grab.
The 3D of Beauty and the Beast doesn’t ruin a single frame of the movie nor does it make the movie significantly better because you could watch it in 2D and it would be just as magical. Like the 3D re-release of The Lion King, the real treat is getting to see Beauty and the Beast back on the big screen and seeing it a new high-definition transfer. The re-release also makes the smart decision to leave out the number “Human Again”, which isn’t a bad song, but it’s nowhere near as good as the rest of the number and it slows down the pacing. Beauty and the Beast 3D is a shinier version where the gleam doesn’t make the original come off as gaudy. Beauty and the Beast remains the enchanting and magical movie I fell in love with twenty years ago.