Friday, January 13, 2012

Beauty and the Beast, as the song says, may be “A Tale as Old As Time,” but the story as told in Disney’s 1991 film, was one of the movies to usher in the new golden age of animation for the studio.

Beauty and the Beast came just after Roger Rabbit and The Lion King had shifted the perception by adult audiences that feature animation was worth seeing without the necessity or excuse of a child in tow. In fact, it was a case where cinema artist John Alvin created only one movie poster for its original release. “Adult campaigns” had only recently been added to the “juvenile campaigns” that had previously been the focus for marketing Disney “cartoons.” Walt himself had always intended for full length features to appeal to adults, which explains some of the more violent aspects of Snow White and the largely esoteric Fantasia.

So while Beauty and the Beast certainly drew a large audience of children, their parents found much to love in the original release, becoming loyal fans and even naming it as their favorite Disney movie.

I remember back when I was one of only at most 10 galleries in the world specializing in Disney animation art, and people were just learning about what cels even were. Within a few years of Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, everyone starting collecting cels. Cartoons and cartoon art no longer were just kid stuff. A relief to alter ego Leslie of ArtInsights Animation and Film Art Gallery, it was the glorious turning point when folks stopped coming into the gallery and asking, “Do you have any REAL art?”

The Sotheby’s auction of art from the movie (the loss of which archivists at Disney rue to this day—they no longer allow any original art to be released from Disney’s animation Research Library) generated a huge amount of press and excitement. Prices reached $30,000 to $40,000 and beyond. Animation was finally being taken seriously as an American art form.

Ruben Precopio (a production artist friend who had created maquettes for the movie in 1990) said in an interview with me that Beauty and the Beast was a cinematic perfect storm—the most perfect movie he worked on while he was at Disney. He’s not alone in his thinking. Many of the animators I’ve spoken to in interviews have named it as one in which all the best aspects of film making came together. The entire process was fun to work on, everyone had the same vision, and the end result was indeed a beauty to behold. New experiments using computers animating backgrounds gleaned the lovely and, at the time, lauded ballroom dancing scene. It was the the best of the partnership between Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who died shortly after the film was made. It was famously the first animated feature to get nominated for an Oscar for best picture.

So what of this new version, now all dolled up for a new audience? Those who went in droves to see The Lion King in 3D were far better served than those who have chosen Beauty and the Beast as their first foray into these Disney redo’s, and here’s why: Part of what made The Lion King a new classic is the majestic backgrounds and vistas of the African landscape. Those landscapes lend themselves perfectly to 3D.

As Beauty and the Beast is predominately character driven, there is less to wow us with. There are great moments: the rain, snow, flowers, the cutlery and plates in the “Be Our Guest” sequence, are all more detailed and therefore all the more charming.

Certainly the scenes with Belle and Beast interacting in the landscape, Belle’s rescue and the bird feeding scene for example, are more eye popping and have more visual depth. The ballroom dance scene is spectacular, of course, but was so before they added 3D. Though not quite the spectacle The Lion King 3D was, this Beauty and the Beast has just enough added depth to make it worth seeing. But the point is, the movie itself is so great, fans are thrilled this rerelease offers the opportunity to see it again on the big screen.

At the preview, there were many hundreds of women excitedly waiting in line, representing three generations; moms of preteens in their late twenties to mid thirties, who had obviously originally seen it when they were kids, and their moms, who were seeing it again with their kids and grandkids (and braving 3D, which most over 40 either detest or are slow to accept).

At the end of the screening, there wasn’t just a little applause, it was surprisingly vigorous. The little girl next to me said, “Oh, mommy! That was so, so, so, so good!” and the mom responded, “See? I told you!”

Note to Disney Studios: Hey, guys! Traditional animation isn’t dead, it just needs a great story. Maybe the success of these 3D versions of the classics will inspire them in creating a great hand drawn animated feature again.

…If for no other reason then to create an opportunity for three generations of women to sit in a dark theatre and clap their hands off.