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DVD Review: Beauty and the Beast

By Glenn Abel

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Beauty and
the Beast art The 20th century was the best of times for the fable of Beauty and the Beast. Two near-perfect versions of the "tale as old as time" came to life via cinema: Jean Cocteau's dark masterpiece of 1946 and the Walt Disney Co.'s bold, vibrant version in 1991.

Disney, of course, has long held the franchise on animating fairy tales, with Walt Disney and his craftsmen bringing to life "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" "Sleeping Beauty" and "Cinderella." But "Beauty and the Beast" eluded Walt Disney, who made failed attempts in the 1930s and '50s to find a final act for the ancient story.

It was "the last of the red-hot fairy tales," says producer Don Hahn, who put together the young team that cracked the case in the late 1980s. "We were kind of kids," he says. Recalls one of Hahn's animators: "We knew that we were the next generation and this would be our mark, just like 'Snow White.' "

That happy ending is now a part of Hollywood history -- boxoffice riches, critical acclaim, enduring public affection and a bountiful afterlife on VHS and in musical theater. Now, the "Beast" is back, marking his DVD territory with a double-disc set from Disney Home Video (retail $29.99). The THX-certified set features three versions of the film. Extra features are extensive, presented in a consumer-friendly tone that may put off serious animation buffs.

Although the first disc packs in three films and a commentary, the DVD images somehow look terrific. Primary colors are larger than life, often flirting with oversaturation. Shadows retain their inky menace; pastels look gallery-ready. The screen presentation is 1.85:1, with the enhancement for 16x9 monitors. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix makes little use of the rear speakers, instead focusing on putting on a good show up front. The actors' voices sound true and strong, as if from a Broadway stage. Navigating the menus can be frustrating.

Most viewers will opt for the special edition of "Beast" that played in Imax cinemas earlier this year. It adds the musical number "Human Again" (sung by the castle's "objects"), which was cut from the original. The sequence seamlessly plays but does noticeably delay the narrative. Animators also did some cleanup on the new version's backgrounds. The original theatrical release is included on the disc for those who prefer "Beast" in its original habitat.

The "work in progress" version of the film that electrified the New York Film Festival is the third option. This was hardly a rough cut, though -- Disney artists at the time actually went back into finished sections to insert unfinished materials. "It was utterly foreign to us that people would like to see pencil tests and storyboards," co-director Gary Trousdale recalls.

Trousdale, fellow director Kirk Wise and producer Hahn provide the commentary, joined at times by music man Alan Menken. They don't seem to have put in much prep time -- there are awkward silences and a lot of unfocused chatter -- but some good stories emerge nonetheless.

All conversations seem to lead to lyricist/exec producer Howard Ashman, who was dying of AIDS during production. "Howard was not only the lyricist, but he was coach and instructor to a lot of us," Hahn recalls. The music was recorded with the stars, chorus and orchestra all in one room -- as if for a Broadway cast album -- and at one point, Ashman was phoning in direction while listening from his sickbed. Ashman gets much of the credit for the film's infectious humor, best expressed in the he-man villain Gaston, who proudly proclaims, "I use antlers in all of my decorating!"

Extras of note include an early presentation reel, an art gallery, character studies, early camera movements for the ballroom dance and a few alternate musical takes from Menken as well as the usual trailers and promo art. Kids have a few games to fool around with.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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