Wednesday, February 10, 2010

#30: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

If "The Little Mermaid" was the firecracker in reestablishing Disney's animated reputation, then "Beauty & the Beast" was the friggin' atomic blast. It was even more lauded and well received by critics and audiences alike, and of course is amongst the studio's most well loved films. Its highest "honor" was being the only animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Not only is that now broken with this year's "Up," I call shenanigans; this gets nominated while Pixar's previous nine are ignored? And don't give me that Best Animated Feature category crap; award shows hate animation, plain and simple. But I'm losing my focus here... what's this, "Beast"? Oh right, right...
Our heroine is Belle, a gorgeous young woman living in a quiet European village, and has the whole place perplexed by her (she reads books? Talk about fiction!). Not as perturbed is Gaston, a widely beloved pompous brute who is determined to make Belle her trophy wife. One day Belle's inventor father Maurice heads off to the city, but ends up getting lost and stumbles upon an abandoned castle. There he encounters a group of surprisingly animate inanimate objects, as well as a hideous beast, who locks him away. Belle eventually finds him, and barters his freedom in exchange for hers. Unbeknown to Belle is that a curse had long befallen the castle, turning the head of house into the beast and his servants into household objects, which can only be broken by true love (what else?), but who could ever love such a horrific beast? ...well, who do YOU think?
This is probably the first film since Walt's death that I can call a triumph, at least in a few regards. In terms of it being a musical, it's incredibly effective. Each song is not only catchy and memorable, but fits with the characters and themes of the story, and motifs from all of them are reprised throughout the film, making them ever present, which is pretty great. The opening number "Belle" is probably my favorite, as it lays the groundwork for the rest of the movie straight off, plus it's one of those songs that's sung by a multitude of people singing different parts and has a lot of layers, but is all melodically sound and smooth. I can just go on listing every song, since they're all fantastic; they're simple yet complex, and work to the advantage of the pacing of the movie. For evidence, I submit "Gaston"; whereas we would normally have a scene of exposition with Gaston coming up with his scheme to scam Belle into marriage, instead we have it told entirely through song, which serves to rouse up Gaston's self-image (which is high enough as it is), as well as communicate his plan in quick simple terms. The movie is kept moving without having to explain a lot, and that can help a great deal.
The story is also pretty solid, always focused and structured. Lumiere, Cogsworth and the other side characters have their moments to themselves, but they're largely in connection to the plot, or are at least mulling over events that had happened, but always in an entertaining way that seems to mean something. The characters transitions of Belle and the Beast are also handled well, and while I still feel the turn on Belle's part is a bit far fetched (I chalk at least part of it up to Stockholm syndrome), it's not quite as preposterous as I had thought it was going to be. However, I once again have to take up issue with our main character; Belle, like Ariel, is not quite interesting a character. The opening number about her describes her as liking books and having her head in the clouds, but that's about it. She sings about wanting more out of life, but it's pretty ambiguous, so again, not much connection with our lead. The Beast is a bit more complex; part of him is thrilled about Belle's presence and his chance to break the spell, but he's been so blinded with rage over his hopeless condition for so many years, and it's communicated pretty well through his expressions. Belle, however, is animated pretty blandly. Why are we stuck with such bland female characters?
Ever improving, we get more computer animation integration here, and it does keep getting more and more solid. This is best represented of course by the famous ballroom scene, which I have to say looks pretty damn good, even after twenty years of technical advancement later. The movie has a rustic tone and look to it, understandable in its rustic village and castle environment though. We get a bit more variation in color schemes with hues of grays and browns, so it's not as irritatingly vibrant as "Mermaid." Though some parts of the castle I felt got washed out in dark blues and browns, but maybe I'm just nit-picking at this point.

Verdict? After all the praise I've just laid upon "Beast," it feels like I'm unfairly backtracking by saying I didn't think it was perfect. Perhaps I just want to buck what every review has said about this being an absolute masterpiece; the film is quite good, as I said Disney's best since Walt's death, but further development of our heroine both in character and animation might have strengthened her purpose and appeal in the film. Disney knocks it out of the park in the musical front, but on the whole as a film, it didn't completely grasp me, but just enough for me to say it's pretty great.

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