With a pitch-perfect blend of epic romance, adventure, comedy and infectious musical numbers, 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" is in many ways the quintessential Disney fairy tale.
As it returns to theaters this weekend for a limited re-release, audiences will have the chance to revisit (or, for those lucky few, experience for the first time) the magic of one of the most acclaimed animated features ever produced — and, like last year's massively successful "Lion King," this time in eye-popping 3-D.
It's easy to forget just how remarkable "Beauty and the Beast" really is as a film — and how important it was when it was originally made (during a period that is frequently called the "Disney Renaissance").
In the decades following Walt Disney's death in 1966, the Disney Animation Studio had languished creatively and its reputation for groundbreaking filmmaking — the kind associated with earlier classics like "Snow White" (1937) and "Pinocchio" (1940) — had been lost. Finally, after the box office failure of the studio's 25th feature, "The Black Cauldron" (1985), the entire future of animation at Disney seemed to teeter on the edge.
In 1989, however, after a series of shakeups within the company, the young animators who had stepped to the forefront managed to reverse all this with "The Little Mermaid." Two years later, "Beauty and the Beast" made history as the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Based on a French fairytale popularized during the 18th century by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, "Beauty and the Beast" became Disney's 30th feature-length animated film, although the story had been batted around by Walt Disney himself as a possible late-career return to the fairytale genre of decades earlier.
In a way very similar to 2010's "Tangled" (Disney's 50th animated feature), the filmmakers behind "Beauty and the Beast" consciously worked for a balance between the legacy of Disney's previous fairytale/princess movies and a more modern sensitivity with a strong female character who better represented audience ideals. Thus, Belle (voiced by Paige O'Hara) is an intelligent young woman who dreams not of her true love's kiss (to paraphrase another Disney movie), but of something outside the confines of the provincial town in which she lives.
Likewise, using the nascent CAPS technology developed by a young Pixar team, "Beauty and the Beast" symbolized a bridging of old and new in its innovative mix of traditional hand-drawn and computer animation. (The ballroom scene where this technique features prominently is, pretty amazingly, just as breathtaking today as it was 20 years ago.)
A huge amount of the success of "Beauty and the Beast," though, is owed to the legendary songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
As it was originally conceived, "Beauty and the Beast" was going to be a stuffy, non-musical adaptation set in 18th century France and featuring a cast of foppish, powdered wig-wearing aristocrats and an evil aunt. After a disastrous screening of the first 20 minutes of this early version for executives, the entire project was scrapped. Menken and Ashman were then brought in to inject life into the dull screenplay with the hope that the retooled film could achieve the same kind of success as Disney's previous collaboration with the duo, "The Little Mermaid."
Ashman died of complications related to AIDS before the film was finished, but his contribution to the final product can hardly be overstated. A brief tribute to him runs in the closing credits.
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Although some will balk at the steep ticket prices and the unnecessary gimmick of 3-D conversion, the added depth is actually occasionally pretty effective. If nothing else, though, the opportunity to see a bona fide family classic like "Beauty and the Beast" in theaters is unfortunately rare these days. Very few films in the last 25 years have achieved the same level of near-perfection as this Disney masterpiece.
"Beauty and the Beast 3-D" screens with a short titled "Tangled Ever After."
Sources: "Waking Sleeping Beauty" documentary; "Tales as Old as Time: The Art and Making of 'Beauty and the Beast'" by Charles Solomon
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.