Better remembered than seen, Beauty and the Beast has been treated unkindly not just by the years that have passed since it was released to enormous acclaim in 1991 (so enormous it became the first animated film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar), but by a faddish 3D conversion; thus it stands a disaster in four dimensions, rather than the three we’ve grown accustomed to in the wake of Avatar. In terms of resurrecting Walt Disney Animation Studios, which had been in a slump since the 1960s, and had only just began to show signs of life (with the success of Oliver & Company and, on a different cloud entirely, The Little Mermaid), Beauty and the Beast obviously serves as some kind of keystone. In retrospect, however, it was so thoroughly outclassed in subsequent years not only by Pixar’s masterpiece machine, but by traditional Disney features like Aladdin and The Lion King, that the heaping of praise and accolades upon its head now seems a little embarrassing, a premature ejaculation of sorts, as if Hollywood and the media had crossed a desert so arid, any bucket of dirty water might have looked like champagne.
The story isn’t much more complicated than the 18th-century stock fable on which it’s based, but somehow what makes it a post-Bluth/pre-Shrek Disney confection has everything to do with reducing every aspect of its source material to the level a kindergartener would understand; remember, this was before 1992, when Robin Williams’s performance as the genie in Aladdin made rapid-fire, adult-safe comic relief mandatory for all professional-grade kiddie films out of Hollywood. Whenever we see the dopey, mega-toothy Lefou, the hulking, self-involved monstrosity Gaston, or Belle’s crackpot inventor father, you can practically hear the germ of something like Titey, the 1998 “Saturday TV Funhouse” spoof of Disney (and Bluth) animation and Titanic, form in the brains of smart-aleck viewers the world over.
If the film has any redemptive value, it comes in the form of a trio of showbiz pros who provide the voices of three anthropomorphized household appliances: Angela Lansbury, whose Broadway career continues to flourish, delivers the film’s title tune, gooey treacle that it is, like nobody’s business; David Ogden Stiers is the comical timepiece Cogsworth; and as the candlestick Lumiere, Jerry Orbach, one of the stage and screen’s most brilliant and underrated performers, channels Maurice Chevalier with such perfect precision you’d never guess his iconic role was playing a grizzled cop for 13 years on Law & Order.
Save for some artful backdrops, the furtively CGI versions of which are all the more impressive given how primitive those software tools were in 1991, Beauty and the Beast looks surprisingly ghastly. Partly that’s the fault of the 3D retrofit and its over-clear, high-definition presentation. It’s not likely you’ll be able to see this in 35mm, but if you have to see it at all, you really need the film projector’s blur to give the hand-drawn cells some sort of alibi; think of the way makeup artists had to throw out their whole kit when sportscasters and anchor people were being broadcast in HD. Mostly, though, it’s just strikingly lousy work in almost every frame, to the point where you realize that, at that point in its timeline, Disney’s dark days weren’t yet fully in the rear-view mirror.