“I’ll get warm, piping hot! Heaven’s sake, is that a spot?! Clean it up, we want the company impressed!” So singeth squeaky clean AARP-sichord Angela Lansbury, quite self-referentially, in the smooth, inoffensive, boring cartoon that got Oscar to give up its animation cherry in their previously live-action-exclusive Best Picture category. Of course, history immediately assigned the blame for this apparent regression on a weaker-than-usual field of contenders. (Ego trips from both Warren Beatty and Barbara Streisand faced off against a self-important “not a horror movie” cannibalism flick and Oliver Stone’s even creepier swan dive into the deep end of gay, communist, Cuban dissidents.) But in retrospect, the nomination was as inevitable as the overdue nod for Pixar following last year’s Best Picture expansion to 10 nominations. The nomination was a reward for returning to the mold, for paring away any hints of radical enterprise, for endorsing the same archetypes that molded most voters’ childhoods, and for relocating that pot of box-office gold at the end of the rainbow. If The Little Mermaid reawakened the sleeping giant, Beauty and the Beast grabbed him, tied him down to a scientist’s gurney, and extracted the formula from his lucre-pumping veins. It represents the most obviously premeditated move in the studio’s history.
But credit where credit is due. Compared to the blatant consumer myths of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast hides Disney’s entrepreneur spirit well within the folds of its storybook trappings. It’s a tonal throwback to the imposing castles, plush sidekicks, and magical kisses of the studio’s ’50s output, but P.C.’ed up for the totally-now ’90s. The auburn-haired heroine Belle isn’t some tragically lovelorn, personality-devoid waif, scrubbing floors, plucking songbirds out of thin air, and waiting for someone to fill her up with meaning. Her goal in life isn’t to live happily ever after, it’s to expand her own horizons beyond “this Provençal life,” to simply live more. Which wouldn’t be too hard to accomplish given her lack of many other defining features. She’s less proto-feminist than she is inspired loner, with her cute button nose in a book and her relationships with men more oblivious than assertive. Like so much of her surrounding movie, Belle seems a victim of the Disney team’s quest to focus on the bare essentials of their product line.
If there’s an unfair double standard being affixed to anyone, it’s actually the film’s two main men. Barrel- and hairy-chested tenor Gaston is vilified for planning to “make” Belle his wife without once bothering to consult with her on the plan, and yet the hairier, tank-chested baritone Beast is ennobled for trying to do the same thing, and for equally selfish reasons. (As a pretty-boy prince, he rebuffed an old hag’s offerings, and was cursed into monstrosity when that hag turned out to be a beautiful and vengeful sorceress. Only a gesture of true love can return him to his former foxy human form.) Gaston’s only significant step beyond Beast’s deception in overall loathsomeness is, I guess, the fact that his bicep flexing routines are performed as much for his own entertainment as it is for Belle’s. Gaston is turned on by his own body, whereas Beast is ashamed of what his has become. Nevertheless, both intend to use Belle as a means to get what they want of themselves: Beast wants to break his curse, Gaston wants to sperminate Belle’s womb with a pride of mini-Gastons.
In the safest manner imaginable, Disney deployed every routine trick in the book to turn this “tale as old [and ponderous] as time” into yet another piece of owned and copywritten fantasy. Cute supporting characters cavort around to keep kids from falling asleep. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman fill the soundtrack with a rousing, cookie-cutter cantata. Hand-drawn cells cohabitate uneasily with some of the studio’s earliest computer-generated animation. And Angela Lansbury’s voice warbles enough to register as a Richter Scale readout of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. None of it can disguise the fact that the story it’s all in service of represents the most hypocritical and skin-deep parable in Disney’s entire picturebook library. To wit, true love is blind to looks, but only temporarily, after which suddenly everyone who falls in love will look fresh, clean, and milky luminous. To paraphrase Greta Garbo, “Give me back my Cocteau.”
Every last inch of this Blu-ray is covered with hair. Well, not really, but it sure looks about as nice as a freshly combed mane. If the studio's overly shellacked visual motifs have ever had a more appropriate match, it's to be found in the aggressive generic qualities of Beauty and the Beast. So soak in those rich amber tones and glowing candlesticks without guilt. Rejoice in the sweeping "crane shots" of the ballroom dancing sequence knowing that technical perfection is the best the film has to offer, and Blu-ray technology is only stressing the point. Digital artifacts are imperceptible, and whatever print they used their digital Windex on appears to have already been in pristine condition. The 7.1 audio presentation is filled with the depth the movie itself never offers. Direction effects are omnipresent but never forced as they have been in so many previous DVD remasters. The sonic atmosphere feels incredibly natural.
Disney has pulled out stops I didn't even realize had been gapped before. I didn't count, but I think there's probably roughly 47 hours worth of supplemental material spread out over two Blu-ray discs and one DVD. The useful stuff is all hindered by the fact that it's supplemental to Beauty and the Beast, but suffice it to say the film's fans will eat up the over two hours' worth of behind-the-scenes footage, the deleted scenes, the two separate cuts, the interactive storyboard views, and the feature-length audio commentary in which directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale remember how, near death, Howard Ashman instructed their Belle to swoop on the word "alarming" like Barbara Streisand would.
Indulge me a moment while I go over the set's failings. Again, Disney wastes resources and attention by including a handful of interactive games and activities I can't imagine anyone who has ever used even a Sega Genesis would find amusing. One of the games, "Bonjour—Who Is This?," is so focused on the possibilities of interactivity (here impressed via cellphone technology) that mirth gets lost in the process. If I had kids, I'd sooner submit them to a Gaston muscle-flexing drinking game than suggest they test out "Bonjour—Who Is This?" Elsewhere, the mash-up between the old DVD bonus content and the new Diamond Edition's extra features pits Celine Dion against Jordin Sparks in a power-pop edition of "Who Wore It Best?" Having suffered through enough Lip Smackers music video updates to make Beast's curse look like a picnic, I'm shocked I have to call it a draw. Lastly, the extra DVD, designed for families to take with them in the car, features a five-minute commercial for how totally immersive Blu-ray is featuring Cole and Dylan Sprouse talking about taking baths, cutting their gums on popcorn hulls, eating spaghetti off of the floor, and sneezing off Tinkerbell's pixie dust.
Beauty and the Beast is the movie that convinced Disney they were back in the game. I’d like to send T-1000 back in time to destroy it.