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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies and DVDs: Beauty and the Beast. Movie: Truesdale/Wise. DVD: Cocteau/Clement.


U.S.: Gary Truesdale, Kirk Wise, 1991-2012

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (La Belle et la Bete) (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

France: Jean Cocteau/Rene Clement, 1946 (Criterion Collection)

The new 3D version of the Disney Studio’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast — which is called by some the best animated feature of all time — may not in fact be as magical as Jean Cocteau‘s 1946 live action French version of the same story, and Disney directors Gary Truesdale and Kirk Wise may not be Ben Sharpsteens (Pinocchio, Dumbo) or John Lasseters or Hayao Miyazakis. But this genuinely spectacular version of Mme. Le Prince de Beaumont’s classic French fairytale “La Belle et la Bete” does a marvelous job of reviving and revising the delights of the first Golden Age (1937-1959) of the classic Disney feature cartoon, while ushering in the computerized cartoon age of today. It’s an exciting, funny, romantic, sometimes marvelous family show, and the song score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken — with those two showstoppers “ Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast” — really is one of the best animated feature scores ever. I can’t imagine many families, even cynical ones, not enjoying this movie.

The Walt Disney Studio Beauty and the Beast, which was heavily influenced by the Cocteau/Josette Day/Jean Marais version, weds Mme. Le Prince de Beaumont’s ultra-romantic story of the prince who’s been enchanted into a beast, and the beauty who can break his spell (if she loves him), to a likeably cute Disneyfied demi-world of magical mansions in bewitched forests, of talking teapots who sing like Angela Lansbury, of urbane candlesticks who sing like Jerry Orbach singing like Maurice Chevalier, of fussbudget clocks, and a beauteous heroine (Belle) with a lush soprano voice, a scurvily good-looking villain, and a beast of a hero, so leonine and handsome that he might well have inspired that famous utterance of a famed actress on seeing Cocteau’s last scenes of Jean Marais without his Beastly makeup, as he embraces Beauty: “Give me back my beast!”

“Give us back Cocteau‘s ‘beast’” a few purists might cry here, even though the 1991 Disney film was the first animated feature to win an Oscar nomination for Best Picture — and was a double Oscar winner for Menken’s score, and Menken and Ashman‘s effulgent love ballad “Beauty and the Beast.” Like Cocteau, the Disney version turns the story into a Gothic romance and the Beast into a big, stormy-featured Edward Rochester-like figure, a tormented royal aristocrat who falls for the good-hearted beauty Belle, just as she obstinately refuses to fall for the egomaniacal, bad-hearted Gaston (Richard White), the town lady killer who has his own lovestruck Bimbettes following him around.

Instead Belle takes her mad-inventor father Maurice’s (Rex Everhart) place as the Beast’s captive, and resists for a while his rough-featured but elegant courtship, only to finally swoon for the whirling waltz big ballad love number. The movie, like Cocteau’s, sets up a choice between the man of substance who looks like an animal and the selfish bully who looks like a prince, and allows Belle to make the right pick and win out in the end, in exaclty the sort of SPOILER ALERT “happy ever after” END OF SPOILER we expect from our fairy tales.

Again like Cocteau, screenwriter Linda Woolverton and directors Truesdale and Wise fill the Beast‘s castle with enchanted objects: in the later movie’s case, with anthropomorphic household items (inspired probably by Cocteau’s spooky living wall candelabras) that have winsome sassy cartoon personalities. Like Cocteau, whose motto for his film was “Astonish Us!“ the Disney filmmakers all try to keep astonishing us — and they mostly do, or at least they will for the wee ones among us.

The cast is a good one, and it was obviously picked for musical chops as well as acting, and not necessarily for simple star power, as is too often the case gthese days. Paige O‘Hara is the dulcet voice of Belle, Robby Benson is the roaring Beast, Lansbury is Mrs. Potts the teapot, and Bradley Michael Pierce is her Chip. Orbach is the Chevalier-like Lumiere (a great name) and David Ogden Stiers is Cogsworth the clock. Jesse Corti is Gaston‘s mean sidekick le Fou, Hal Smith whinnies likeably as Philippe, Belle‘s horse. Jo Ann Worley (once of “Laugh In”), is fittingly Mme. de la Grande Bouche, Tony Jay is M. d’Arque the head doctor who runs the Maison de Lune (to which evil Gaston wants to commit Belle’s father), and Mary Ann Bergman and Kath Souci are Gaston’s Bimbettes.

It’s a beautiful looking film, and the castle in the forest is one of the Disney Studio‘s great sets, a worthy successor to the Sleeping Beauty’s castle that later became the studio‘s signature and the symbol of Disneyland — but whose characters in the 1959 movie I always found a little stiff. What makes Beauty and the Beast a superb movie, or at least an almost superb movie, is that glorious, delicious, sweetly sophisticated and cheekily delightful song score by Ashman and Menken, especially the unusually clever and witty and apropos lyrics by Ashman. The Ashman-Menken songs — here and in The Little Mermaid and, more sparingly in Aladdin — are in the great lyrical, urbane Broadway show-song score tradition of songwriting teams and singles like the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Frank Loesser and Sondheim and Bernstein.

If it seems almost odd that that tradition would have continued so strogly in a Walt Disney cartoon, at a studio where even the great song scores (Snow White, Pinocchio, Mary Poppins) were usually a little schmaltzy and corny, the evidence is undeniable. After their smashing success with The Little Mermaid (especially that tongue-twistingly buoyant masterpiece “Under the Sea“) Menken and Ashman nearly topped themselves with the Broadway-style score of Beauty and the Beast — which stops the show with the big ballad “Beauty and the Beast,” of course, but also with the snappy comedy song “Be Our Guest,” with those lively little castle utensils hoofing and singing and spinning away in geometric choreography worthy of Busby Berkeley trying to do a Julia Child number.

Ashman knew he was dying of AIDS (he succumbed at 40) when he wrote this score — for which he interrupted his and Menken’s work on Aladdin. Ashman and Menken ended up with a total of eleven songs for Aladdin, only three of which were used. But the rousing blend of Menken‘s lushly melodic music and Ashman’ witty and ingeniously shaped lyrics, set a standard in those three movies that, The Lion King excepted, none of the subsequent musical animated features, including Disney’s, have been able to match.

This movie, in any of its versions, flat or 3D, is ideally a show for families, for children, preferably bright children. But, thanks to Ashman, it’s also, more than most Disneys, for adults. Along with The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Beauty’s critical/commercial success helped bring on the second Golden Age of Disey movie animation, an era in which we now reside, thanks these days largely to the current Disney head man, Lasseter of Pixar. Lasseter is also the producer of this 3D Beauty and the Beast, which is tasteful, unobtrusive and not disfigured with that usual 3D curse: an underlit, under bright, too-dark palette. The whole presentation is another smashing success.

By the way, if you want to see the Cocteau version, an excellent release — which includes both the original French soundtrack with Georges Auric’s music, plus the Philip Glass opera score — is available from the Criterion Collection. And since Disney, under Lasseter, has been so good about reusing and reviving its past legacy, why not revive those eight unused Ashman-Menken songs for Aladdin (as one unused Beauty and the Beast song was later revived for a reissue), either for another movie, an extension, or a song gallery of some kind? Film, as Cocteau himself once said, may be the only art that shows death at work. But it’s also the art that can triumph over death.

Ashman died at 40, too soon, and we’ll never get another brand new Ashman-Menken score. But I’d love to hear those abandoned songs and see them visualized. If the Beatles could do it for John, why not Beauty for Howard?

Extras for the Blu-ray DVD of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), in French, with English subtitles:

 The Philip Glass opera score accompaniment as an alternate sound track; Commentaries by Arthur Knight and Christopher Frayling; 1995 documentary “Screening at the Majestic,” with Beauty and the Beast cast and crew interviews; Interview with cinematographer Henri Alekan; Photos and publicity stills; Film restoration demonstration; Original French trailer, directed and narrated by Cocteau; Restoration version trailer; Booklet with essays by Geoffrey O’Brien, and Cocteau; excerpt from Francis Steegmuller’s 1970 “Jean Cocteau: A Biography”; and an introduction to his opera by Glass.

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2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies and DVDs: Beauty and the Beast. Movie: Truesdale/Wise. DVD: Cocteau/Clement.”

  1. The Pope says:

    Ah, brilliantly written! Thanks for the read.

  2. Loved the Beauty And The Beast, still a fab film.


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And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

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