BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – Blu-ray review

Be . . . their . . . guest,
be their guest,
put the picture to a test,
pop the Blu-ray in your player
and let Disney do the rest.

Oh the sound
does resound,
extra features do abound,
if there’s better music out there
it’s a part of Broadway culture . . .

Corny too? Sacre bleu!

It’s what this movie does to you!

I’m talking, of course, about “Beauty and the Beast,” an animated classic that plays very much like Disney’s animated version of a Broadway show, with every last one of the numbers seemingly scored and staged for the theater. That soundtrack from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, as well as breathtaking art design by Brian McEntee and direction from Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, made this film so distinctive that, until “Up” (2009), it was the only animated feature to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar instead of being relegated to the animation category.

Now, “Beauty and the Beast” comes to Blu-ray looking every bit the winner. It’s a must-have for families, Disneyphiles, animation-lovers, music-lovers, and romantics with a soft spot for fairy tales and happy endings.

This well-known fairy tale was first published in France in 1740 and has been retold countless times. It concerns a merchant who has three daughters, one of whom is the most pure, and when the family loses their fortune after a fleet of trading ships is lost at sea, they have to leave their mansion and live in a hovel. Later, when word reaches them that one ship actually survived and made it to port, the merchant heads off to assess their financial state. But before he leaves, he asks each daughter what she wishes him to bring her. The other sisters want jewelry and fine dresses, but Belle is content with her father’s safe return. “Bring me a rose,” she says.

Ironically, that simple request proves to be everyone’s undoing, for the merchant, seeking shelter in a storm, ends up at a castle where, after spending the night, he sees roses in the garden and plucks one to take home. At that point a beast berates him for taking one of his prize possessions and tells him as punishment he must stay forever in the castle as a prisoner. Somehow the merchant convinces the beast to let him go, but the beast demands that he send his daughter in his place. Belle goes there, and after a time grows so homesick that the beast allows her a visit. But she doesn’t return. In a magic mirror that was given to her, she sees the beast dying of a broken heart and rushes back to him for the climactic denouement.

Disney, of course, made some adjustments. Gone are the sisters, because to keep them would feel a little too close to “Cinderella,” and gone too is the idea that Belle’s request could have been responsible for her father’s predicament. I mean, what kind of self-respecting Disney Princess would do that sort of thing? Added is a trait that would make Belle stand out from all the other princesses: her love of books and reading, which would also create a common interest that could open the door for a beauty to actually, logically love a beast–something the original fairy tale lacked. Added too was a rival for the beast’s affections, action (via wolves and a peasants-storming-the-castle scene), and humans turned into enchanted objects by the same spell that cursed the beast, who’s really a prince.

On top of all that, the voice talents really own their characters and do their own singing. Paige O’Hara hits the right emotional tone as the voice of Belle, while Robby Benson holds his own as the gruff but evolving beast. Even Angela Lansbury, who plays the enchanted teapot Mrs. Potts, gets into the act by singing the enchanting title song. The entire soundtrack is superb, with the most memorable songs being “Beauty and the Beast,” “Be Our Guest,” “Belle,” and “Something There.” But even “Gaston,” which will remind viewers of the Ratigan song from “The Great Mouse Detective,” and “Human Again,” which was added later in an extended edition, start to grow on you and serve as perfect complements to the sensory-packed visuals.

The result is something quite wonderful, which is perhaps why Disney reports “Beauty and the Beast” is their most requested film. And it looks even accomplished in Blu-ray after a restoration and the addition of a 7.1 digital soundtrack. I can reassure videophiles (which sometimes seems euphemistic for DNR-phobes) that Disney has preserved a very slight layer of filmic grain and has respected the integrity of the original source materials. Edges are sharper, but not at the expense of the negative space around them, and the level of detail is much more than we’ve seen in previous releases. Now in combo pack with DVD and an additional Blu-ray disc full of bonus features, this title, which hasn’t been available for seven years, returns in a definitive “Diamond” edition. Just one word of caution: for whatever reason, Disney is marketing this the same as “Snow White”: in two different styles of packaging. One is a standard DVD case, the other a standard Blu-ray case. If you’re particular about such things for your collection, be sure to pay attention when ordering online or specify when putting this title on your birthday or Christmas list.

“Beauty and the Beast” has always had some scenes that looked deliberately “soft” in the background, as if to mimic atmospheric conditions. There are different color palettes, too, that seek to make Belle and the Beast stand out against a sometimes predominantly ochre background. But this new restoration sharpens everything just a little, while still leaving that thin layer of film grain that seemed always intended to mimic a movie as well as a stage production. I saw nothing wrong with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig Blu-ray disc–no halos, no artifacts, no banding, and no evidence of scrubbing. Colors in interior scenes are rich and warm, and exteriors are nicely textured. “Beauty and the Beast” is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, which means that, since the original theatrical aspect ratio was 1.85:1, the picture has been “enhanced” for 16×9 televisions.

The English DTS-HD MA 7.1 Surround audio is also superb, creating a dynamic sound field that easily fills the room with bright treble, smooth-but-earthy bass, and a big sound to match the big production numbers. There are also 5.1 DEHT French and Spanish audio tracks, and subtitles in English SDH, English ESL, French, and Spanish.

There are more ways to watch “Beauty and the Beast” than you can imagine. You can watch the Special Extended Edition of the film (a 92-minute version that incorporates the song “Human Again”) or the original 85-minute theatrical release. You can also watch a Work-in-Progress Edition (that is, the original theatrical version and storyreel simultaneously to see how the film evolved over the course of production). If you’re into music, you can watch the Special Extended version in Sing-Along Mode. And if you’re a fan of commentaries, you can watch the extended edition while listening to directors Wise and Trousdale team up with producer Don Hahn to talk about a full range of topics related to the film, ranging from history, pre- and post-development, production, and casting to the kinds of anecdotes that keep informational tracks easy to absorb. Finally, there’s something called “Fast Play,” which is a programmable pick-your-own-scenes option that allows viewers to watch the film during shorter time periods than the total film runs. All of the viewing options are excellent, though I’ll have to admit that I’ll never use “Fast Play,” and I can’t imagine the directors wanting people to skip large chunks of a movie while essentially creating their own version. But in this age of hyper-interactivity, it was bound to happen.

Collectors will be relieved to note that an hour’s worth of bonus features from the previous DVD release is included here, including introductions to the new song “Human Again” and various camera and animation tests. All of the original features are presented in this release in standard definition.

For the Hi-Def stuff, the main documentary, “Beyond Beauty,” runs roughly 160 minutes and has click-on icons that give you access to more documentary materials and outtakes. It’s actually pretty nifty. Then there’s a half hour of deleted scenes, among them a previously unseen extended opening introduced by Peter Schneider, and an extended storyboard segment set in the beast’s library that’s introduced by story supervisor Roger Allers. Music-lovers will warm to a 20-minute segment with Menken and Disney historian Richard Craft that finds the pair talking about the score and the intent of each song. Then there’s a 13-minute featurette about the Broadway adaptation that followed the release of the film, a Jordin Sparks music video (“Beauty and the Beast”), and a bunch of sneak peeks, including the upcoming animated feature “Tangled.”

Game-lovers will be a little disappointed, I think. For whatever reason, Disney has created a game that was obviously inspired by websites that put multiple players in scenario, so the main game–“Bonjour: Who Is This?”–is one which requires you to use your telephone to play with anywhere from one other person to seven more. Say what?? Not this Disney-lover! Yes, you’re supposed to do this with friends and guess who’s who before they guess you, but I don’t get it. What about Caller ID? The only other game, “Enchanted Musical Challenge,” is a traditional trivia game where the goal is to answer questions that help you find four of Belle’s friends in the castle. One game is overly ambitious, and the other a little underachieving, if you ask me.

When all is said and done, it’s the roughly 160 minutes of fresh HD bonus content from “Beyond Beauty” that “sings” the most.

Bottom Line:
This beloved 1991 film has never looked better, and seems even more magical in Blu-ray. Simply put, “Beauty and the Beast” is a must-own release. Just be careful, if you care about packaging, to note that Disney is releasing it in both DVD cases and also those blue jewel cases for Blu-ray packaging. Why, I can’t begin to fathom, since all the other combo packs Disney releases are in Blu-ray packaging. I would think it would only cause confusion. I personally will be going with the Blu-ray packaging, because it takes up less shelf space and you can squeeze more shelves into an area than with DVD cases. Both products contain the exact same contents: one DVD and two Blu-rays. But because we were sent the DVD + Blu-ray package to review, that’s what’s pictured.