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MOVIES : FILM COMMENT : Disney's 'Beauty' Revives Classic Flair in Story, Style

January 05, 1992|CHARLES SOLOMON | Charles Solomon is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

Disney's animated musical "Beauty and the Beast" is one of the few holiday releases to achieve both critical and box-office success. At more than $63 million, it is currently the second-highest-grossing movie of the season, and it received four Golden Globe nominations, including best picture (musical or comedy). The Los Angeles Film Critics' Assn. voted it best animated film of 1991.

But the question that's invariably asked about any animated feature is how it compares with the Disney classics. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the so-called Big Five ("Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Dumbo" and "Bambi") set a standard of excellence that's been used as a yardstick for subsequent animated films. During the past 15 years, press agents have proclaimed that various films would restore "the classic look of 'Pinocchio,' " but critics, artists and audiences all agreed that none of them really matched the classics.

An animated feature is a communal work of art, and some aspects invariably work better than others. A well-animated sequence can electrify an otherwise ordinary film: The bear fight eclipses everything else in the stolid "The Fox and the Hound" (1981). Bad animation can undermine good writing and lively vocal performances, as Martin Rosen's maladroit "Watership Down" (1978) demonstrated, but even the most polished animation can't save a bad story. Although the characters of King John and Sir Hiss are handled with unusual subtlety in Disney's "Robin Hood" (1973), the story is so ineptly told that the viewer doesn't really care what happens to the sulky lion and his sibilant sidekick.

The general excellence of "Beauty and the Beast" indicates that the young Disney artists are beginning to challenge the work of their predecessors. They haven't yet achieved the uniform visual richness of "Pinocchio" or mastered the creation of a heroine as appealing as Snow White, but there is much to celebrate.

The enchanted objects who function as the Beast's servants continue the Disney tradition of animating the ordinarily inanimate, from the dancing diaper pins in the Silly Symphony "Lullabye Land" to Merlin's recalcitrant sugar bowl in "The Sword in the Stone" (1963). Cogsworth, the prissy clock / butler (David Ogden Stiers) in "Beauty and the Beast," oozes self-importance as he fusses, while the suave Lumiere (Jerry Orbach) moves with the practiced grace of a man (or candlestick) of the world. An even greater challenge to animate is Mrs. Potts, the teapot/housekeeper (Angela Lansbury): She's little more than a disembodied head, but the artists manage to communicate her thoughts and feelings.

Like Gus and Jaq, the mice who assist Cinderella, the endearing trio of clock, candlestick and teapot enables the directors to comment on the action without giving the main characters dull, pointed speeches.

Probably the most underappreciated character in the film is Philippe, the draft horse who carries both Belle (Paige O'Hara) her father, Maurice (Rex Everhart), to the Beast's castle. He moves with the ponderous weight and gait of a Clydesdale. Rendering this kind of realism has always been a frustrating assignment for an animator: If the character is done right, he's taken for granted--he's just a horse. But if he doesn't move properly, the audience notices and he ceases to be believable. Philippe joins the stable of solidly animated and overlooked Disney horses that includes Cyril in "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad," Major in "Cinderella" and Samson in "Sleeping Beauty."

If the supporting characters draw on well-established studio antecedents, the three main characters all represent varying degrees of innovation:.

Beast (Robby Benson) is the studio's most extraordinary creation since Walt's death. His anatomically complex design is extremely difficult to draw, yet the animators make him move with believable strength and weight. Few animated characters have had to express such a complex range of emotions: He smashes furniture in a thunderous rage but timidly tries to conceal his monstrous bulk when he woos Belle by feeding a tiny bird. Beast's expressions and body language mirror his anguish when he frees Belle, as he conquers by conquering himself in a tour de force of character animation that can stand alongside the studio's best work.

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