This fall, probably in time for Thanksgiving, Walt Disney Pictures will release a feature to which more than 500 full-time animators, artists and technicians have contributed and whose plot is already considered a classic.

"Beauty and the Beast," a 19th century French fable about a cursed nobleman seeking someone to love him, will be Disney's 30th full-length animated film.Part of the ongoing commitment to animation that Disney has made under the Michael Eisner regime, "Beauty and the Beast" has been four years in the making.

"It's one of the real, great classic love stories of all time," said Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg when he hosted a recent unveiling of scenes and songs from the film in New York. "It's as noble a thing as we could set out to make."

Producer Don Hahnm says the Disney version of "Beauty and the Beast" is a liberal adaptation of the tale, changed so the movie isn't only about "people who have dinner together every night."

"They're actors with a pencil," Katzenberg says of the animators who have made the likes of "Oliver and Company," "The Little Mermaid" and "The Rescuers Down Under" for Disney in the past five years and now have been toiling especially over the drawing of the Beast - the most difficult character because his face must be a combination of animal and human features reflecting everything from anger to sadness, but not scare children.

Katzenberg is so hot on "Beauty and the Beast" he thinks it and not the studio's planned prequel to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" will "break the barrier between animated and live-action films and be judged in the center of movies."

The film comes on the heels of disappointing box office returns for last year's "The Rescuers Down Under," a production with lessons that haven't been lost on the cost-conscious Katzenberg.

"We're extremely proud of `Rescuers Down Under' visually, but we missed opportunities with it," he says. "I think it was one of the three best-animated films from Disney. But it didn't have enough heart. The characters were not evolved enough. It was a mistake not to make it with music. But it's not a failure."