There are certain things you want-and expect-from a new animated feature by Walt Disney Studios, and Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s follow-up to its phenomenally successful The Little Mermaid (1989), provides them. From its eye-popping opening shot, a shimmering vista of the Beast’s castle looming up from behind a nearly 3-D forest, the movie rarely fails to dazzle. There’s the sheer, paint-factory gorgeousness of the animation: the beautifully gaudy background landscapes, which don’t so much reinvent the physical world as rediscover it; the images of smoke and rain that seem more tactile than life (in a Disney cartoon, water is so thick that people can be covered with it and somehow avoid getting wet); the miraculous buoyancy of movement, as if everything on-screen, from the proud heroes to the birdies in the trees, were part of the same swirling visual symphony. There’s also the friendly, knockabout humor, with animals skittering across courtyards and rooms turned into giant, surreal playpens. And, of course, there’s the fun of seeing familiar domestic objects-clocks, teacups, bedroom dressers-chatter away in cornball foreign accents.
But there’s another thrill associated with Disney animation, one that not all the studio’s cartoons have brought off successfully. I’m talking about the pleasure of seeing hand-drawn artistry lend resonance and emotion to a fairy- tale story line. That’s what happens in Dumbo and Snow White, in Bambi (perhaps the greatest animated feature ever made), and in The Little Mermaid, where young Ariel’s desire to leave the sea becomes a plangent metaphor for growing up. And it’s this deeper, more lasting pleasure that, I’m afraid, is missing from Beauty and the Beast. Splendidly crafted as it is, the new Disney is a luscious impasto of visual invention that never quite finds its heart.
What makes this doubly disappointing is that all the elements appear to be in place. Belle, the beautiful young heroine, is a bookworm living in a provincial village with her befuddled inventor father. In the nearby woods lives the Beast-actually a prince who’s been placed under a spell and transformed into a hairy, demonic creature with protruding lower fangs. To break the spell, he must fall in love with someone for her inner beauty, and she must love him back. Within the Beast’s castle, an impossibly towering gothic palace with more nooks and crannies than San Simeon, Belle becomes his captive, and love slowly ensues.
So what’s missing? Mostly, the Beast. He should be a figure of haunting, monstrous poignance. But as realized by the Disney animators and voiced by Robby Benson, he just comes across as a rather grouchy bison. The film has a full musical score, ranging from the hummable (”Gaston,” the movie’s comic highlight) to the merely serviceable (the Busby Berkeley set piece ”Be Our Guest,” which, sorry to say, is no ”Under the Sea”). Yet there isn’t one song in which the Beast gets to express his loneliness. What’s missing from Beauty and the Beast is the core of enraptured yearning that marked Dumbo, Bambi, and the Oedipal bond between Ariel and her Neptune-like father in The Little Mermaid.
In other ways, the movie is enjoyable. Gaston, the callow hunk who pursues Belle, is a wonderful character, a granite-jawed Don Juan on steroids. And the comic trio of Lumiere the candlestick (who sings like Maurice Chevalier), Cogsworth the clock, and Mrs. Potts, a cockney teapot voiced by Angela Lansbury, is a worthy addition to the Disney canon of casually surreal supporting players (admittedly, this stuff seems a bit more routine after Pee- wee’s Playhouse). For all that, one watches the movie well aware that Disney has striven to make an animation classic-a cartoon with soul. It’s by that standard that Beauty and the Beast, for all its craftsmanly charm, falls short. B