[Note: The review of the film is an edited version of my review for the 2012 3-D re-release. Scroll down for my review of the new special features.]
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. With that version already on my shelf, does the new version make enough additions to the special features to make it worth another purchase?
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, 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 also 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. 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.
Beauty and the Beast is a bona fide classic that deserves to be in everyone’s collection. The question that the new release raises is what should you do if the movie is already in your collection?
If you’re picking this up solely for the sneak peek at next year’s live-action remake, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Most of the footage is already online, and it’s less than two minutes long. This isn’t an in-depth behind the scenes look at Bill Condon’s picture, so if you’re hoping to get a better look at that movie, you’re just going to have to be patient.
The other weak feature on the disc is “25 Fun Facts About Beauty and the Beast” hosted by Disney Channel’s Gus Kamp and Kayla Maisonet. If you’ve ever wanted Disney Channel moppets to read you IMDb trivia in an upbeat tone, then you’ll enjoy this feature. For everyone else, it seems oddly out of place. While I understand that Beauty and the Beast is a family film, this extra is out of sync with the maturity of the other special features. It’s bizarre to have one feature that’s been tailored for kids while the other features will appeal more to the people who saw Beauty and the Beast back in 1991.
The other special features are much stronger. The highlight of the disc is “Menken & Friends: 25 Years of Musical Inspiration”. The special feature is a conversation between Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin), Stephen Schwartz (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas), Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Frozen, Disney’s upcoming Gigantic), Robert Lopez (Frozen, Disney’s upcoming Gigantic) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Disney’s upcoming Moana), and it’s basically just the composers geeking out over each other’s work. It’s delightful to see them comment on the impact of Disney musicals, and to have them talk about their inspirations.
The next best feature, although it’s all too brief, is “The Recording Sessions”. When the voice actors for Beauty and the Beast would record their dialogue, they were taped for the benefit of the animators (Belle pushing her hair back is a tic they got from Paige O’Hara). I’ll admit that I got a big grin on my face watching Jerry Orbach voice Lumiere.
Speaking of the voice actors, “Always Belle” is a nice look at the work of O’Hara, and how her performance as Belle changed her life. Voice actors rarely get the credit they deserve (especially now that most of them are A-list actors who just want to be part of a movie they can show their kids), and it’s nice to have a little spotlight shown on O’Hara’s career.
Finally, there’s the awkwardly titled “#1074: Walt, Fairy Tales & Beauty and the Beast”, which shows that Walt Disney was considering a Beauty and the Beast movie decades ago but never got around to it. The feature digs deep into the Disney archives to try and find out how far the old animators got into the movie, and while it doesn’t come up with much, there are a few neat surprises along the way.
So should you buy the new Blu-ray? If you don’t already own Beauty and the Beast, it’s a no-brainer. In addition to these special features, you’re also getting a digital copy, so it’s well worth the price. But if you already bought the Diamond Edition back in 2010, it’s tougher to recommend. The “Menken & Friends” special feature is great, but it’s not enough to warrant slapping down more money for a film you already own (it’s worth noting that, like the Diamond Edition, this Blu-ray comes with four versions of the film: original theatrical, advanced sing-along version, extended version with “Human Again”, and a work-in-progress version).
If you already own Beauty and the Beast on Blu-ray, you don’t need to buy it again, but if you don’t own it, then the 25th Anniversary Edition is the way to go, especially since it also includes all the special features that were previously included on the Diamond Edition.