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Beauty and the Beast (1991)

With Beauty and the Beast, Disney finally come up with something that, even if it does contain bits lifted from their past hits, is a genuine advance for their style of cartoon, tackling a far thornier fairytale than they've done before with far more depth of feeling.

Any Beauty and the Beast has to contend with Jean Cocteau's 1946 masterpiece La Belle et la Bete, and the Disney team have wisely chosen to lift much of the embroidery on the basic story from that rich feast, taking Cocteau's eerie idea that every object in the Beast's castle is alive, transforming the French poet's living candelabrums into chirpy all-singing, all-dancing wardrobes, clocks and tableware who fulfil the function of the dwarves in Snow White or the animals in Cinderella. Also taken from the Cocteau, and every other version of the story ever done, is the let-down of the 'happy' ending. The whole point is that the heroine, and the audience, fall in love with the Beast because he has a good heart underneath his monstrous exterior; so, when the Beast turns into a handsome Prince, the girl's love for the monster becomes an irrelevance, and the hunky Prince glimpsed here, like all the other princes in the other versions, is a good deal less interesting and lovable than the monster we've got used to, plus those raised on the Addams Family might prefer the enchanted castle as a ravaged and haunted ruin with the living candlesticks to the squeaky clean mansion with boring old human servants you get when the spell is lifted.

However, that cavil aside, this is wonderful. Contrasted with the Beast - a marvellous cloaked quadruped who chimerically combines wolf, buffalo and Tasmanian Devil, and is surprisingly well-voiced by perennial weedy leading man Robby Benson - is a character who happens to be handsome on the outside and ghastly underneath, Gaston the Huntsman (Jerry Orbach), a swaggering braggart completely in love with his own magnificence who tries to bully the heroine into marrying. By beefing up this character, the film makes you understand why Belle, daughter of a semi-loon inventor, might prefer someone decent inside to an outwardly good-looking clod. The three main characters - the Beast, Belle and Gaston - are astonishingly realised by character animation, every line putting over a wide range of expressions, the animators showing that they can do the job of even the most skilled actor.

The living furniture (spot the voices of Angela Lansbury, M*A*S*H regular David Ogden Stiers, Laugh-In veteran Jo Anne Worley and Twin Peaks' Kimmy Robertson) allow for some great gag-filled sequences that take the romantic-melancholy edge of the familiar tale, and there are two stand-out stretches of bravura, a Busby Berkeley-style dance extravaganza with a literal feast of choreography and a waltz in which the lovingly hand-crafted title characters dance in an amazingly three-dimensional ballroom. The songs, by the team who did Little Shop of Horrors and The Little Mermaid (composer Howard Ashman has subsequently died of AIDS and won an Oscar), may not be up to the score of Pinocchio or Snow White, but the lyrics do have the sophistication and complexity of Steven Sondheim numbers and the smoochily magical romantic numbers work well in context even if it is the clever comic songs which stand out.

The most watchable U Certificate film of the decade.
KIM NEWMAN

First Published In: Film Review (issue unknown)


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