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MOVIE REVIEW : A ‘Beast’ With Heart : Animated Disney Feature Is Most Satisfying in Years

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Fairy tales are not for children only. Faced with a world of painful realities and deferred dreams, what adult, given half a chance, wouldn’t want to cozy up to a story that begins “Once upon a time in a faraway land” and is sure to end with everyone living happily ever after?

“Beauty and the Beast,” the 30th full-length animated feature from the trolls over at Disney and the most satisfying in decades, serves that dual audience with a practiced expertness. Wised-up as well as traditional, with a striking and detailed look and a strong storyline, it is sure to charm a wide audience both now and for a long time to come.

Yet, as if underlining the reasons we crave this kind of escapism, it is difficult to watch “Beauty and the Beast” (at the El Capitan in Hollywood) without feeling a sense of loss. For Howard Ashman, the film’s brilliant lyricist, who also wrote the songs for Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and the off-Broadway sensation “Little Shop of Horrors,” died of AIDS last March, and as we sit captivated by his and composer Alan Menken’s exceptionally alive songs, it is hard to accept that, except for three he finished for the studio’s forthcoming animated “Aladdin,” there simply won’t be any more.

Ashman was also the film’s executive producer, and instrumental in conceptualizing the turning of an ancient tale that has appeared in many guises across many civilizations (including, no kidding, a tale of a girl who married not a bear or a beast but a stove) into a sprightly modern musical.

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Perhaps as a reaction to criticism that that cute little mermaid was a bit of air-headed fluff, the creators of this G-rated “Beauty” (including screenwriter Linda Woolverton) have taken pains to not only show this heroine to be a model of strong, self-reliant womanhood but also to make the biggest obstacle to her happiness not the woebegone beast but a heroically conceited monument to male chauvinism named Gaston.

Before we meet these folks, however, a prologue, illustrated by an exquisite series of stained glass windows, tells the back story of a spoiled, handsome prince turned into an awful beast by an avenging enchantress after he refuses her gift of a magical rose. He will remain so cursed forever, she tells him, unless he can learn to love, and be loved in return, by the time the last petal of the rose falls.

Blissfully unaware of this is the beautiful Belle (voiced by stage actress Paige O’Hara). We meet her strolling the streets of her quainter-than-quaint French village, complaining that “there must be more than this provincial life.” A reader and a dreamer, she yearns for adventure, little guessing how much of it will soon be in store for her.

Belle’s father Maurice, a feckless inventor very much in the Gyro Gearloose mold, gets the plot rolling by getting himself hopelessly lost in the deep woods. He stumbles across a towering, intimidating castle, which he finds to his horror is inhabited by that foul-tempered, roaring Beast, who promptly locks him up on general principles. The feisty Belle retraces her father’s steps and offers to take his place as the monster’s prisoner.

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According to the press notes, the reason Walt Himself had given up on an earlier Disney attempt at “Beauty” is that his team couldn’t lick the problem of how to make Belle’s stay at the castle less than claustrophobic. Again, it was Howard Ashman who broke the spell, coming up with the idea of enchanted bric-a-brac, like Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), the candlestick with the personality of Maurice Chevalier, and Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury), a teapot with a heart of gold. In fact, one of the film’s animated high spots has all these objects, plus a brace of silverware and all kinds of crockery, go into an elaborate “Be Our Guest” production number that even Busby Berkeley would have been proud to call his own.

Also helping things in the castle is the intriguing personality of the beast. As voiced by Robby Benson (yes, that Robby Benson) and animated by Glen Keane, the Beast is a splendid creation, managing to be both intimidating and endearing, fiercer than fierce when danger threatens from a genuinely frightening pack of wild dogs, but just a big softie with a bad temper where Belle is concerned. And, yes, they do make an awfully cute couple.

Just about stealing the picture from those two lovebirds, however, is the square-jawed, fat-headed presence of Gaston (Richard White), the greatest hunter in town and Belle’s wanna-be lover. But while the Beast appreciates Belle for what she is, Gaston is a classic self-absorbed sexist who wants to see her barefoot and pregnant, one more trophy to add to his already sizeable collection.

Animator Andreas Deja has said he based Gaston on L.A.'s more-than-ample supply of conceited swains, and Ashman and Menken have given him the film’s funniest song, a noble ode to himself where the great man claims “no one’s quick as Gaston, no one’s slick as Gaston, no one’s head is incred-ably thick as Gaston.” If you don’t walk out of the theater humming this one, go back and try again. While certain types of cleverness are exclusionary, Ashman’s is the opposite, effortless effervescent and totally welcoming. We are going to miss his work. In fact, we already do.

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‘Beauty and the Beast’

Robby Benson :Beast

Paige O’Hara :Belle

Richard White :Gaston

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Angela Lansbury :Mrs. Potts

David Ogden Stiers :Cogsworth

Jerry Orbach :Lumiere

Walt Disney Pictures presents, in association with Silver Screen Partners IV, released by Buena Vista. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Producer Don Hahn. Executive producer Howard Ashman. Animation Screenplay by Linda Woolverton. Editor John Carnochan. Songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Music Alan Menken. Art director Brian McEntee. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

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MPAA-rated G.


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