Of all the great Disney animated features from the late 1980s through much of the '90s, "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) has the strongest claim to being a classic. "Aladdin" is funnier, "The Lion King" more spectacular, the heroines in "Pocahontas" and "Mulan" better drawn.
But in nearly every other animated feature, from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to "The Little Mermaid," the beautiful heroine and the handsome hero fall in love at first sight. The idea of a young woman learning to love a gentle heart hidden beneath a baleful exterior represented a major break with tradition. The unconventional romance delighted audiences and critics, and "Beauty and the Beast" remains the only animated film ever nominated for the Academy Award for best picture.
Its re-release in Imax format beginning Tuesday, with six minutes of new animation to the song "Human Again," offers viewers a chance to rediscover the special charms of "Beauty." But it also poses some intriguing questions, beginning with: Why tamper with a well-loved film? "We asked ourselves the same question, and I think the only reason we did it was the song," replies producer Don Hahn. "We felt we needed to express a part of the story that we hadn't gotten to tell: what the Objects' vested interest is in the curse [that has turned them from human beings to household objects]. Howard Ashman desperately wanted to make this song work, but it was 11 minutes long when it came in ... and we just ran out of time. When Alan Menken solved the problem in the stage show, it was exciting to restore the song the way it was meant to be."
Although it's featured in the stage musical, "Human Again" doesn't really add much to the animated "Beauty." As the Enchanted Objects clean the neglected castle ballroom and gardens, they anticipate rediscovering the pleasures they knew in their original bodies. Lumiere boasts, "Poised and polished and gleaming with charm/I'll be courting again/Chic and sporting again," and Mrs. Potts replies, "Which should cause several husbands alarm."
The clever rhymes and imagery in all the musical sequences remind the audience how much more satisfying Ashman's work was than the songs in recent animated films. Since his untimely death in 1991, only Stephen Schwartz's "The Colors of the Wind" for "Pocahontas" and Randy Newman's "When She Loved Me" for "Toy Story 2" have approached the standards he set in "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin."
Ashman's songs advance the plot by exploring the characters' emotions and making story points more concisely than conventional exposition. By the end of the deceptively simple-sounding "Something There," the audience understands what Belle and Beast feel and how disconcerting those emotions seem: "New and a bit alarming/Who'd have ever thought that this could be?/True, that he's no Prince Charming/But there's something in him that I simply didn't see."
The concise, apt lyrics contrast markedly with such recent numbers as "Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart" in Don Bluth's "Anastasia" and "It's Tough to Be a God" in DreamWorks' "The Road to El Dorado," which bring their stories to a screeching halt.
It's entertaining to see more of the familiar characters, animated by the artists who created them. But "Human Again" shifts the focus away from Belle and Beast at precisely the moment it should remain fixed on them: as they realize they're falling in love. And while it's clever in concept and execution, a second major production number simply isn't needed; "Be Our Guest" is sufficient. "Human Again" doesn't detract from the film, but it feels unnecessary.
When the Disney Studio included the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment from the original "Fantasia" in "Fantasia 2000," the result was disastrous in Imax. The coarser grain of the film stock and the cruder lenses available in 1940 hadn't produced images clear enough for the outsized Imax screen. Mickey looked as if he were struggling with the brooms in a heavy sandstorm.
Hahn explains why "Beauty and the Beast" looks so much better in the large format: "'Beauty' was one of the first digital movies made in Hollywood. The fact that it was archived digitally meant we could get these beautiful, pristine frames onto the big screen. It gave us an experience that went beyond just blowing up a regular 35-millimeter print. I think if we hadn't had the digital files, we wouldn't have re-released the movie in this format."
Hahn's assessment is accurate: The huge images are crystal clear. But watching "Beauty" suggests that if showing Disney films in the Imax format is to become more than a novelty, the artists will have to develop new styles of direction and animation. There is talk in animation circles of releasing "The Lion King," "Aladdin" and others in large format, but the studio hasn't confirmed that.
Some parts of "Beauty and the Beast" work very well on the huge screen. The opening multi-plane shot, when the camera slowly trucks through the forest toward Beast's castle, produces an almost vertiginous sense of movement in depth. Other three-dimensional moves, notably the celebrated traveling shot through the chandelier as Belle and Beast waltz to the title song, have an added impact.
The other moments that work most effectively in Imax involve the smallest motions: the close-ups of Beast as he agonizes over his decision to set Belle free. When the film was released, supervising animator Glen Keane complained, "I wanted to animate the incredible turmoil that was going on inside the character, and there was no action. The only way to express those intense emotions is by subtly tilting an eyebrow or changing the shape of the corners of the mouth. It's very delicate work, completely the opposite of what I was feeling inside." The greatly enlarged images showcase the strength of Keane's work: The anguish Beast experiences never seemed so heartfelt on smaller screens.
But if some sequences look great in the large format, others are less effective. Fast camera moves, fast cuts and some fast animated movements seem to blur as the viewer's eyes strain to process all the information the Imax screen presents. Belle's rescue by Beast from the wolves in the snowy forest is an exciting moment in conventional theaters and on video. But in Imax, the motions seem to smear, the action becomes difficult to follow and the sequence loses much of its punch.
Slowing down the films for the gargantuan screen could provide a welcome respite from the rapid-fire cutting and needlessly elaborate camera moves in many recent animated films. The jittery "Zero to Hero" number in "Hercules" looked like it had been edited in a Cuisinart; the endless tracking shots in "Dinosaur" and "Titan A.E." say more about the available technology than the story the filmmakers are telling. Sometimes the audience--and the characters--need a pause to catch their breath.
Another problem that always dogged "Beauty" was the inconsistency of the heroine's appearance. The prettiest and liveliest Belle waltzes with Beast in his marble ballroom and weeps over his body before he's transformed into the Prince. The Belle who receives the library from Beast has wider-set eyes and a more prominent mouth than the noticeably slimmer Belle who sings "Something There," and the larger screen makes these inconsistencies more obvious. Size relationships are also problematic: when Gaston slings his sidekick around the tavern, LeFou keeps shrinking and expanding, as if someone were inflating and deflating a human-shaped balloon.
The minor characters in Belle's village who sing the opening number were designed with a minimum of detail because they would be small on the screen. In some long shots, the main characters were drawn simply for the same reason. When drawings less than 3 inches tall are projected onto a screen several stories high, the lack of detail becomes uncomfortably evident.
It's not a new problem. In 1832, Sir David Brewster, the inventor of the kaleidoscope, complained about the awkward-looking images in the popular "Phantasmagoria" shows, which featured paintings of ghosts projected through magic lanterns: "Even Michael Angelo [sic] would have failed in executing a figure an inch long with transparent varnishes, when all its imperfections were magnified." He should have seen them in Imax.
Disney already commands the artistic and technological resources to resolve these problems, but it should apply them to new stories that can only be told in the large format. It's a pleasure to see "Beauty and the Beast" again in a theater with an audience that laughs and cries, but most of those pleasures would be just as evident in a conventional presentation.
Opens Tuesday at the Universal CityWalk Imax Theatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, (818) 760-8100; the Imax Theatre at the Bridge, 6081 Center Drive, Howard Hughes Center, L.A., (866) 747-1234; and selected theaters.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun