Of Beauties And Beasts
Both Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bête” are based on a short story by Jean-Marie Le Prince about the love that blooms between a Beast and a young woman whom he has imprisoned in his castle. Both films are enchanting in their own special way, and both are now available on Blu-ray, thanks to the Criterion Collection, and Disney, which released their film this fall in a 3D format as well.
In 1991, Disney was cresting on an amazing renaissance of animation and musical theater on screen. “Oliver & Company” musically paved the way for the success of “The Little Mermaid,” and “The Rescuers Down Under” was the studio’s first experiment with a computerized motion CAPS system, which was used to dazzling effect in “Beauty and the Beast’s” famous ballroom sequence.
With the 1990s also came a rethinking of the traditional female lead in Disney animated features. No longer would the Disney princess be dependent on Prince Charming to rescue her. In Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Belle is more content to have her nose in a book than pay attention to suitors, especially the vain Gaston.
The addition of a handsome yet unsatisfactory suitor is one element that Disney’s film shares with the Cocteau story. While in the earlier film, Avenant (Jean Marais) simply lacks personality, in the Disney version, Gaston is a vain and nasty guy that eventually leads an angry crowd to charge the Beast’s castle so that he can “rescue” his Belle. (Of course, Gaston also gets one of the showiest numbers in the movie, too, as all bad guys do.)
“Beauty and the Beast” is a dynamite production. Think back 20 years for a moment. Do you remember the popular Broadway musicals of the day, like “Once On This Island,” “The Secret Garden,” or even “Miss Saigon” (famous mostly for an on-stage helicopter)? What about the Tony winner that year, “The Will Rogers Follies?” No? Well, I bet you can sing a few bars of “Be Our Guest,” or “Beauty and the Beast,” two of the Oscar-nominated songs from the film (the latter won).
Those songs were written by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, whose previous collaboration, “The Little Mermaid,” won two Oscars for Best Score and Best Song. After a scrapped attempt by Disney story artists to make “Beauty and the Beast” as a more European, non-musical animated film, Ashman and Menken were brought in to jazz up the production, and when it opened, “Beauty and the Beast” was hailed as the best Broadway show not on the Great White Way. Tragically, Howard Ashman never lived to see the film’s success. He died of AIDS in March 1991, and there’s a wonderful tribute to the passionate writer included on this Blu-ray release of the film.
Crucial to the story in Disney's “Beauty and the Beast” is an opening prologue, establishing the reason for the Beast’s existence. He was once a handsome, yet selfish young prince until an enchantress transformed him into a hideous beast. To become a prince again, he must love someone, and be loved in return, by his 21st birthday, or remain a prince forever. In this way, although Belle is ostensibly the central character in the film, the story belongs to the Beast. It’s his emotional transformation that we ultimately root for.
Everything is clicking in this movie. The songs are wonderful, and the animation is among the studio’s finest. The cutting is quick, but not frenetic. And as much as I enjoy Robin Williams in “Aladdin,” it’s refreshing to see “Beauty and the Beast” without having to endure the “name the celebrity voice” game that animated films have been playing ever since Disney let that genie out of the bottle. “Beauty and the Beast” is also refreshingly free of the winking pop culture references that littered “Aladdin” and its spawn, especially the “Shrek” franchise, which already feel dated. “Beauty and the Beast” will remain a classic for generations to come.
Le Prince’s story has been adapted over a half-dozen times on film. If not as popularly well-known as Disney’s version, Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bête” (1946) is equally as revered among those who have seen it. Cocteau’s film opens with a title card imploring adults to open their hearts to childhood wonder, with the words “Once upon a time...”
But in Cocteau’s film, Belle (Josette Day) lives in a darker world than Disney’s heroine. She lives meagerly in the French countryside with her annoying sisters and brother, doting on her weak father, and half-heartedly embracing the overtures of a handsome yet empty suitor, Avenant. Electing to take her father’s place as the Beast’s ward may not be such a bad option!
As in the Disney film, the Beast’s castle is filled with enchanted objects. But instead of dancing and singing, they always seem to be watching. Even the statues’ eyes follow visitors (Cocteau used real actors to play the faces of the statues). Arms reaching up from a table reach out to pour tea, candelabras light themselves, and drapes draw away from Belle’s form as she passes over the threshold.
It would not be just a bad pun to say there is a kind of animal attraction between Belle and the Beast in Cocteau’s film. More so than the Disney version, Cocteau draws out the intense longing Beast has for Belle. Each evening at 7:00, he asks for her hand in marriage, and each day she refuses. Yet late at night, Belle sneaks about the Beast’s castle, spying on him. She’s fascinated by him, marveling at the way his hands smoke after he’s come back from a kill (come on, he’s a beast). From her own hands, she allows the Beast to drink when he is thirsty. And when Belle leaves the castle to care for her ailing father, we see the Beast caressing her empty bed, pressing his face to the sheets.
So great do we recognize the love the two eventually have for one another, that when the Beast is finally transformed into a prince at the end of the film, Greta Garbo was famously documented as remarking, “Give me back my Beast!” Even under heavy makeup, Jean Marais – yes, the same actor that plays the hollow Avenant – expresses with his eyes and body the pain of being the beast.
Cocteau once said that when he makes movies, it’s as if he’s asleep, and is dreaming the film. Nowhere is that more evident than in “La Belle et la Bête.” Suspend your adult prejudices, and relish the experience of seeing something magical – with each of these films.
BEAUTIES AND BEASTS ON BLU
Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bête” is making its Blu-ray debut this year; Disney’s film was released on Blu-ray in 2010, but has been reiussed in the eye-popping 3D format. I tested the disc in the “Ultimate Room” at Bjorn’s Audio-Video in San Antonio. The depth of the 3D image was very good--most of the sets and environments felt like rooms, and a close-up of Lumiere was well-defined. Even the length of his nose was noticeable! But at other times, items were harder to define as rounded objects. Gaston’s arms, during his big number in the tavern, looked flat, and there was a little more of that “View Master”-like quality to the image. Finally, action sequences in 3D are a little confusing, and yes, the image is dimmer than watching without glasses. Did 3D add to the experience? It’s nifty to show off, but the movie is just as fun without.
The other special features on the Blu-ray of “Beauty and the Beast” (which comes with a standard 2D disc as well) include a documentary about the making of the film, including the original presentation reel rejected by then-animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. It’s an inside look at what might have been, and it’s easy to see that the company made the right choice by scrapping the too-serious version and going with a musical. To that end, there’s a nice sit-down chat with Alan Menken, who performs at the piano some of the songs from “Beauty and the Beast” and shares his memories of writing with Howard Ashman. There’s also a look at how the film inspired Disney’s first hit Broadway production. Deleted scenes and games for the kids round out an impressive package.
Criterion’s Blu-ray of “La Belle et la Bête” showcases the terrific restoration job performed on the film in the 1990s, even including a demonstration of the “before” and “after” effects. An interview with cinematographer Henri Alekan is also of interest to those who love hearing the tricks of the trade from the inside source.
A 1995 documentary, “Screening at the Majestic,” features interviews with the cast and crew. Jean Marais was still handsome at 80; he died in 1998 a few years after the documentary was shot. The very same documentary also revisits in color some of the on-location sets. It’s always fascinating to see what has and hasn’t changed over the years.
Finally, for music fans there is a real treat. As an alternate soundtrack, you may choose to listen to Philip Glass’s opera, “La Belle et la Bête,” as the film plays. Glass’s opera completely replaces the original soundtrack. He meticulously timed the dialogue so his singers could match the on-screen characters. It may be heresy to say, but in some scenes, I actually prefer the Glass soundtrack to the original film. His score is eerily effective as Belle’s father enters the Beast’s enchanted castle for the first time.