Such is the might of the Disney story telling machine, that whenever they take a tale and weave their ‘magic’ it is the only story that comes to mind once recalled. Who, for example, can recite the original prose of Pinocchio, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book or The Little Mermaid to name but a few? The same can be said of tonight’s feature, Beauty and the Beast, which although based on the French fairy tale La Belle et la Bête and, indeed, contains many of the significant developments, putting the two side by side they are remarkably different in structure and narrative and, when questioned, anyone will always pick the Disney incarnation (for both story and character design). A large part has to do with how the story is told. Beauty and the Beast had an unprecedented twelve different writers, not including the original author, the two directors, the four producers and the two music directors/song writers. With such a creative soup the potential for disaster is immense. However, Disney were reaching their creative peak in the early nineties, with the runaway success of The Little Mermaid behind them and with Aladdin and the amazing The Lion King already in production, Beauty and the Beast was always in good hands. It tapped into that Disney ‘magic’ that seemed to be lacking in the eighties; the sweeping majesty of the Disney classic was captured effortlessly by telling a familiar tale but with the Disney spin. Harking back to earlier fairy tales by opening with a ‘storybook’ prologue, interweaving songs that drove the story forward instead of stopping the narrative dead and giving a clear sense of right/wrong, good and bad the fable was instantly recognisable as a classic and has been regarded as such ever since.
So much so that it is the second such feature to be given Disney’s lush 2D to 3D conversion after The Lion King. And whilst that attempt is quite incredible, the conversion given to Beauty bests it by being completely natural, competent and layered – more of which is described in the picture section. Since stereoscopic 3D has been embraced by the major studios, nearly every one has sought to find a process that can successfully convert their huge stock of 2D films into the new format. And we all know the results of such lacklustre conversions, there are myriad films that fail to engage or be even remotely convincing in the third dimension. However, unabated the project to convert Beauty and the Beast has been a work in progress since 2007. Now, think about it, how is it possible to convert a 2D animated cell drawn film? Surely even moderate success would still result in flat layers in 3D space – this is how most live action fares, and live action has the benefit of having volume to begin with – cell drawn animation, no matter how good the drawings/artwork, light and shade, is still plain in nature. This was the challenge given to the engineering team at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Disney Digital 3-D had had success with the native 3D releases of Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, Bolt and with the converted Nightmare before Christmas (review coming soon), so hopes were high that Beauty and the Beast could best them all; after all the film itself is a clear classic, but could it be as compelling in stereoscopic 3D? It was decided that it would be, if done “properly” – to which end the team devised hardware and software working under strict principles of stereoscopic viewing, such as depth continuity, depth mark-up, depth visualization and layer management. A new desk-side 3D viewing workstation was developed from scratch to be both cost and design effective, along with software tools that enabled layers to be given volume. The actual mechanism by which this was achieved is beyond this review, but for those interested this explains all (of particular interest to me was the fact that the workstation developed used circular passive line-interlaced 3D technology, which is exactly the same as the technology I used for this review). Suffice to say that the process created was a complete success and has opened up Beauty and the Beast to a new dimension without losing any of its charm.
The story has been boiled down to its constituent parts and, I’m sure, is known by everyone – Belle (the beauty of the title) is imprisoned in a castle belonging to a hideous Beast, an infliction bestowed upon him due to his wicked treatment of an enchantress, and over time learns to love him and thus breaks the spell. It’s an ancient fairy tale and has basis in everything from King Kong to Tarzan but where Disney’s skill comes in is not with the simple story but in the way that that story is told. Character introduction is wonderfully seen, with each having a clear and defined purpose within the narrative. Belle, herself, is a bit of a bookworm, dreaming of a life outside of the village in which she lives, but is firmly rooted there due to her devotion to her father. She is given traits of will and intelligence, compassion and love; all of which she will have to draw on as the film progresses. The second protagonist is the Beast, whose introduction is quite sinister, particularly his treatment of Maurice (Belle’s father). But we have already learned of why he is who he is and why he act like he does, the enchantment on him means he acts as well as looks like a beast; this is particularly evident over the time he has spent alone in his castle, itself enchanted to look hideous, locked away and lamenting his decisions, watching his time slip away. Slipping ever down into madness, he initially fails to see the potential in Belle when she offers her life for her father's, being unable to stem the beast’s nature and it is up to his enchanted objects to encourage and remind him of his humanity. Indeed it takes a supremely selfless act on his behalf for Belle to see behind the monster, but when she does she becomes quite smitten and the two begin to share a very palatable chemistry.
The antagonist is also as well defined, Gaston, a character not in the original prose, is everything that Disney sees as ‘bad’ – he’s big, boastful, self-centred, conceited and a coward who uses diabolical schemes to try and get his way. Yes it’s very ‘boo-hiss’ pantomime thuggery, but in the context of this fairy tale world it works excellently. His treatment of Maurice is worse than that of the Beast and his incitement of the townsfolk means that he is a dangerous character and one to be feared – of course he gets his just desserts! And every villain needs a sidekick, right? Well Gaston is no exception, Lefou is a bumbling fool and the perfect foil for Gaston’s bravado – but, again, Disney get the character just right, he’s not sycophantic or irritating, just daft with comic relief and nothing like later incarnations that are abused and annoying.
Not to be outdone, the Beast has a whole host of ‘sidekicks’ in his castle, each looking after him and Belle, in fact they are the ones who are mostly responsible for their meeting – though enchanted, they still retain their former personalities and are thus not ‘beast-like’ and help to keep the tone nice and light. The gentle sparring between Lumiere the candlestick and Cogsworth the clock is very reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, not least due to their looks, and is one of the highlights of the film.
I, of course, have to mention the music, specifically the songs that drive the film forward. Capitalising on their success with the Little Mermaid lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken once again reunite to produce a body of work that is not only toe-tappingly good, but also helps drive the narrative by explaining story elements as it goes. Belle’s theme explains away her behaviour and neatly defines her character throughout the film. Gaston’s theme does the same for him. While the 'Beauty and the Beast' theme may have won all the accolades, for me it is the terrifically entertaining ‘Be our guest’ song that takes the top marks – lampooned in various shows since (See my Vest, from the Simpsons) this is a tune that is so obvious that you feel you’ve known it all your life; and, yes, this song doesn’t strictly drive the narrative, but it is amazing fun and, for me, one of the many highlights of the film.
Beauty and the Beast is clearly then a bona fide classic and one that is astonishing in this new 3D format – care, attention to detail and a whole lot of love has been lavished upon this release, and it gets a whole hearted recommendation from me.
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