Sunday, April 13, 2014

Beauty and the Beast


Filming the climactic dream sequence for Goodfollies at Sagrada Familia in Barcelona took several days. Toni Soprano, my part, was not needed for all of the shots as there was a bit of business with Norma Desmond, playing my mother, taking off from one of the porticos in a hot air balloon and another with Chris MacNeil as my friend, Carmelina Coloratura rappelling down the Passion facade in the nude. They did use a body double for most of those shots as Chris, lovely as she is, has gone to cellulite badly over the last few years. From certain angles she's a dead ringer for Anna Nicole Smith.

I used my free time to explore the lovely city and was somewhat astonished to find several posters advertising a new stage show, There's No Ibizaness Like Show Ibizaness opening soon at one of the local theaters. My Catalan is not good, but from what I could tell, it promised the famous American singing star, Veekay Lester in a smashing new comedy about love, laughter and tap dancing in the Balearic Islands. I immediately rang my manager, Joseph, and my publicist Madame Rose to see if they had heard anything about this production as it might be taking advantage of my presence in the city to offer the Catalonian people an inferior imitation. They promised to check with the authorities immediately and I headed off to the ticket office to purchase box seats for opening night, determined to let my public see a true star in the audience, if not on the stage.

Having accomplished that errand, I returned to the hotel and decided to fortify myself against what promised to be a hideous night of musical theater with a good musical film. Flipping through my recent purchases at the Barcelona Blockbuster, I came across the new DVD release of Disney's Beauty and the Beast from 1991. This had been a great favorite of mine on its initial release so I decided to give it another look and I was highly pleased with my choice.

Beauty and the Beast is a Disneyfication of the classic French fairy tale written by Mme. de Beaumont in the 18th century. The simple story of the beautiful girl who learns to love a monster and who is eventually freed by the strength of her love has many antecedents in mythology and folklore, such as the classical tale of Cupid and Psyche. In this version, the heroine Belle (French for 'beauteous') is a bit of a misfit in her small town. She's intelligent, bookish, lives with an eccentric inventor of a father and is pursued by the odious Gaston, at first the comic relief and later the villain. All of this is set up in a brilliant opening number, Belle which delineates the style, tone, musical language, scene, and characters in five minutes. Belle's father, Maurice, becomes lost one night in the woods and strays into an enchanted castle, inhabited by a fearsome beast, who is really a prince under a spell. The beast, motivated more by fear and despair than by malice, holds him prisoner.

Belle goes in search of her father and, on finding him, offers to take his place as the beast's prisoner. The beasts servants, who have been turned into various animated household objects by the enchantment, think this an excellent plan as they know that if the beast can learn to love and be loved by his 21st year (a time measured by the wilting of a magical rose), the spell will be broken and all be right. So begins a strange, slow courtship between two unlikely partners, culminating in a magical ballroom sequence that is one of the most romantic scenes ever put on film. All is not easy on the road to happiness and there are complications, but it is Disney so all turns out all right in the end.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, the then president of Disney studios, made several smart decisions when assembling his creative team for this project. For music and lyrics, he chose Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, fresh off Disney's previous project, The Little Mermaid. Menken and Ashman came from a stage musical background and Ashman in particular understood the needs of writing a good musical theater song and the importance of character in choosing lyrics. All of the songs in the piece are little gems of exposition and character detail. Highlights include an uproarious waltz, Gaston, which clearly and cleverly turns that character from buffoon to villain in several quatrains. There's also the marvelous can-can pastiche Be Our Guest during which the castle china and flatware perform Busby Berkeley routines and the title ballad, which accompanies the ballroom scene and is tenderly sung by Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts, a talking teapot. Sadly, Ashman died of HIV complications shortly before the film was completed and never got to see it's great success. It was he who conceived of the servants as talking objects and who set out the essential character arcs that make the film work.

The de Beaumont story consists of little more plot than people chatting at dinner, not enough to hold up a feature length animated film. Katzenberg solved this problem by bringing Linda Woolverton, a professional screenwriter to the project. She constructed the film script as if it were a live action feature, with little regard for the traditional rules of animation. Computer Generated Imagery, then in its infancy, allowed the camera greater freedom of movement and gave the film a sweep and a grandeur not usually seen in animation. In a strange sort of circle, Disney eventually adapted the property (with additional Menken songs) for the stage and this version is to be filmed as a live action remake in the next few years.

Voice casting was spot on. Rather than using film performers, most of the cast came from the world of the New York stage and were thoroughly grounded in the world of the musical. Jerry Orbach (Lumiere, the candlestick), David Ogden Stiers (Cogsworth, the clock) and Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Potts, the tea pot) would all be familiar to viewers of film and TV but all have solid stage musical credentials. Richard White (Gaston) and Paige O'Hara (Belle), although lesser known, are also stage veterans. The big surprise was the casting of the beast. Hundreds of actors read for the role and the choice of Robby Benson seemed unusual. Fortunately, it was perfect. The wounded prince is recognizable inside each of the roars and commands and the transformation of the beast from savage to civilized is entirely credible. In fact, the film makers did such a good job with the beast that, in the end, when he is transformed back into a prince, the audience kind of wants the beast back - that's who they have fallen in love with along with Belle.

The solid craftsmanship, complex characters, first rate music, and visual style caught the public and the critics by surprise and the original reviews were rapturous and business solid. It became the first and only animated film ever nominated for a 'Best Picture' Oscar and it won the Golden Globe that year for best Comedy or Musical. In many ways, it was a Snow White for a new generation of Disney artists and it helped usher in a major revival of Disney animation that continues to this day.

The new DVD release is one of the Disney platinum series on two discs. The first disc contains the film in three versions: the original 1991 release, the 2001 re-release special edition (which includes a whole new sequence and song, Human Again for the objects - it had been planned for the film originally but cut for reasons of storytelling and time), and a rough cut which was screened at the New York film festival some months before the official debut, containing a lot of pencil sketches and rough animation. There is also a commentary with producer Roger Alles, directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale and composer Menken. The second disc has hordes of extras including lots of behind the scenes featurettes, games for the kids, and explanations of the animating process.

Bimbo trio. Comic henchman. Annoying teacup. Esther Williams spoons. Wardrobe swan dive. Golden ball gown. Egg juggling. Bird feeding. Mammoth library. Ravenous wolves. Precious bell jar.

No comments:

Post a Comment