Beauty and the Beast returns to the big screen this weekend (with a 3-D retrofitting) just a shade over 20 years after its initial release and several years after an extended cut of the film made the rounds. The film – which was one of my fondest childhood movie going experiences – holds up nicely in a thematic sense, with as much love for cinematic craft as Hugo and The Artist, but while the 3-D does add to the film, the HD transfer makes a case that maybe not all hand drawn animated films should be toyed with.
The “tale as old as time, and song as old as rhyme” remains the same, as the heroine Belle (voiced by Paige O’ Hara) takes the place of her inventor father after he is captured by a fearsome and selfish beast (Robbie Benson), who just so happened to be a handsome prince cursed by an enchantress. Together in his enchanted castle full of singing and dancing bric-a-brac, Belle helps Beast learn the true nature of love and caring for someone more than he cares for himself.
Despite being the first ever animated film to be nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards, the story to Beauty and the Beast was always structurally unsound. Belle’s transformation from headstrong women, to withering captive, to somewhat sunny optimist still comes full circle, but the character transitions aren’t handled very well, with motivations tied more to plot conventions and storybook moralizing than logical behaviour. Then again, this is ostensibly a children’s film.
That’s all comparatively small potatoes when one approaches the film as more of a historical artifact. From the opening musical number where Belle speaks of her humdrum existence in a provincial French hamlet, Beauty and the Beast strikes a tone of pure joy for the written word. Belle’s bookish ways are looked down upon by a French upper class that thinks a woman couldn’t possibly learn anything from them. It’s a sequence equally literary and cinematic, and a subtle dig at French cinematic sensibilities towards film criticism with the classic line “How can you read this? There’s no pictures!”
Compare this feeling with The Artist, which for all its greatness is a simple story about one man and not saying so much about cinema other than displaying how the rises and falls of celebrity culture are entirely cyclical. Even moreso, compare Disney’s sense of spectacle to Scorsese’s raging polemic disguised as a family film. Disney’s writing staff lucked into a subtler and less headache inducing defence of the cinematic art form in a five minute musical number than Hugo could hammer into someone’s head in over two hours. Coming fresh off a year that many of my colleagues deemed as being too nostalgic for its own good with regards to past masterworks and auteurs, it feels wholly fitting that the best case is made by a 21 year old film.
But enough about subtext, back to the film itself and its new transfer. Reverting back to the original theatrical release and excising the deleted musical number that found its way into the extended cut from a few years back, the backgrounds of the film remain as gorgeous as ever and the sound mix is clear as day. The 3-D makes the combination of hand painted scenery come to life in new and exciting ways, and the HD makes the colours all the more vibrant, but those added dimensions also raise an interesting point.
In scenes where characters are shown in extreme close up, the modern technological advances act as a disservice to the film. With increased picture clarity, the imperfections of hand drawn animation are brought to the forefront. Every pencil stroke and jerky movement is literally in the viewers face and in HD. While I found an odd sense of comfort in being able to visually see the effort that went into making the film, I could also see how some people would say that it now looks cheap by comparison. It leads to a very interesting thing to think about.
While the film was made during the interim between hand drawn and computer animation (which are married seamlessly in the Busby Berkely styled “Be Our Guest” and the titular ballroom dance number), one has to wonder if audiences have not become spoiled by computer animation designed to delete any and all imperfections tied to the use of a decidedly less steady human hand. Does the computer give humanity to something that isn’t there or does the human holding the ink impart some of themselves onto what could be seen by modern audiences as an imperfect creation? Have we been spoiled by the proliferation of computer animation and in about 15 years will we be able to have the same appreciation for these films we once did?
Despite all of this thinking about how the film pertains to modern cinema, I was still taken back to the first day I saw it. The press screening of this version just so happened to be the 20th anniversary of my seeing it for the first time on a snow day from school at the movie theatre I remembered from my youth. It was quite possibly the first time that I looked at a film from a critical perspective. The issues I had with the plot at the age of eight are still roughly the same problems I have now, but as a work of pure cinematic spectacle it might be even more relevant to my tastes as an adult.
Side note: The film is preceded by a short sequel to the movie Tangled. It’s well worth showing up for and serves as proof that Disney has gotten its mojo back when it comes to making short films again.