Beauty and the Beast is so good, it's still worth watching in amazingly lifeless 3-D.
Disney's classic retelling of the classic tale first arrived in theaters 20 years ago. It was, at the time, notable for using some computer animation. Disney had previously employed CGI widely in the less-memorable Rescuers Down Under, but it's not an Olympic broad-jump from the company's experiment here to its faith in full-scale digital animation; Pixar's first full-length film was only a few years away.
Still, Beast is remembered as one of Disney's last great "traditional" animated films, along with The Lion King, which was re-released last year. It's also remembered for being the first animated film nominated for Best Picture, a case that is even stronger a generation later. Seriously: If the Academy could make room for The Prince of Tides that year, Beauty and the Beast seems like an absolute lock in retrospect.
The most-marvelous thing about revisiting this film is recognizing how dramatically the landscape has changed since. Cartoons weren't taken seriously in the 1980s and early 1990s, and few of them were making mountains of money. Disney, in fact, was nearly out of the animation business by the mid-1980s after a series of failures (as chronicled in the passable documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty). Beauty and the Beast was the third movie in a remarkable turnaround for animation in general, and Disney in particular, although if it had been made even a couple of years later, it may not have been the film it is.
For one thing, the songs help Beauty and the Beast operate as a musical. Instead of schmaltzy pop songs, the likes of which litter post-comeback movies like Tarzan, The Emperor's New Groove and even The Lion King, the music is jaunty, and the lyrics clever and sharp. The signature ballad, though it achieved chart success, still serves the film first instead of standing apart as a radio-friendly single. In that respect, this really is the last film of an era for Disney.
Give the opening number a whirl, or "Beauty and the Beast," "Gaston" or the show-stopping "Be Our Guest." Yes, they're pure Broadway, but they also give the film important signposts that help the action flow more easily and with more emphasis.
The story itself, and the performances by an unsung cast, particularly Robby Benson as the Beast, are untouchable. In combination with those songs, it's a truly special recipe. The contemporary digital spectacles may be thrilling in other ways, but this one is still tough to top. Though The Lion King and The Little Mermaid both have ardent fans, neither is as complete of a film as Beauty and the Beast. It's Disney's crowning pre-Pixar glory.
Some might question why a film that is still predominantly hand-drawn animation would need 3-D. Well, it doesn't. It's a business move: Box-office numbers are traditionally weak in January, and here's a movie that audiences already love ... only now it's more expensive to see it. Cha-ching.
There's no pixie dust that Disney could sprinkle on Beauty and the Beast to make it look better than it did; it's not like they've redrawn anything here. In fact, many of the backgrounds, especially those that feature animated characters and not just scenery, probably look worse now thanks to 3-D. A standard re-release may not have drawn attention to those details, but the final verdict has to be that this is just not a good use of 3-D technology.
But none of that diminishes the fact that Beauty and the Beast was, is and always will be a fantastic motion picture.