By Steve Daly
November 06, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Gaston, the vain, status-mad villain of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, would no doubt sneer at the standard cassette version of the animated feature now stocked in every video and discount department store. Not for him the common, no-frills tape, of which retailers have ordered a record 17 million copies. No, Gaston would tromp in his expensive boots straight to the white cardboard boxes enshrining the Beauty and the Beast Deluxe Collector’s Edition, the bulkiest, weightiest video gift pack ever wrapped around a single movie.

So oversize that it’s not likely to fit on bookshelves, this package makes Beast a trophy, a keepsake to be displayed. In the spirit of the story’s anthropomorphic tea server, Mrs. Potts, the box resembles a silverware case, complete with royal blue velour lining and white-ribbon hinges. And the luxe trappings are no skin-deep deception: For once, collectors get almost as value-packed a deal as those who buy the ordinary cassette version, which is being widely discounted to around $16.

Of course, the heart of both these editions is the movie itself. It’s a joy at any price: inventive, funny, and filled to overflowing with richly conceived characters (just compare Cogsworth the bossy clock with Cogsworth the human servant to see how thoroughly the details have been worked out). Though the film’s original rectangular images look a tad cramped on television’s squarer screen — particularly when Beast snarls his petulance in close-up — the Disney technicians have labored to rub as high a sheen as possible into the color and sound. Heard through stereo speakers or a Dolby Surround amplifier, the delightful Howard Ashman — Alan Menken songs glitter with instrumental detail, and snatches of lyrics stand out for the first time — as when Gaston’s goons storm Beast’s castle chanting, ”Here we come, we’re 50 strong/And 50 Frenchmen can’t be wrong.”

But it’s not just quality of presentation that helps you discover new facets of Beast on video. It’s a child of MTV, built to sustain saturation viewings with a pace so clipped that sometimes you wish it would linger a bit longer — especially in the movie’s first third. Every scene whips along like an excerpt, and to tap into the story line’s emotional terrain adequately, you’ve got to watch again and again. Not until you learn by rote that Beast’s fury is coming next, for instance, does the ”Be Our Guest” hullabaloo over a meal Beast has forbidden become fully delicious. Some gags fly by so fast you’ll have to freeze-frame the tape to catch them: Can you find the Potemkin-homage baby buggy flying down the stairs in the battle finale?

Beast has so many fleeting visual grace notes that it rewards this sort of hawk-eyed viewing — and that’s where the real payoff of the gift set lies. On a separate cassette, you get Disney’s work print of the movie, which was shown at the New York Film Festival in fall 1991, two months before Beast‘s official theatrical release. Intercut in brief flashes during the musical numbers and for sustained passages in linking scenes, you can see the animators’ rough drawings and still storyboard sketches. It’s not very satisfying to view all in one sitting, and the sneak-peek thrill of the festival unveiling is lost now, but the work print remains a testament to the drafting powers of the Disney staff. Without backgrounds, color, or smoothly retraced lines, the cruder drawings of the Beast character, especially, take on more expressive power; it’s astounding how much feeling the animators get into the simplest pencil strokes.

Unfortunately, on cassette these intermittent rough-draft snippets tend to zip past before the typically sluggish freeze-frame and slo-mo controls of VCRs can respond. A letterboxed CAV-format laserdisc edition, due in stores by Thanksgiving, makes a better showcase for the work print, since it allows instant, perfect still frames and variable-speed playback. And though the $99.99 gift-box edition throws in more extras — including the movie’s score on CD and a ”making of” video documentary and book — the coolest supplemental goodies can be found only on the laserdisc. Extras include a pencil-test version of ”Be Our Guest,” in which the singing flatware assails not Belle but her father, and a sensational rough run-through of Beast’s death and transformation that has more power than the smoke-and-rain-drenched movie version (or even the slightly more finished work-print scene).

Those who want to own a final print on laserdisc are, for the moment, out of luck. Disney, concerned about bootleg cassettes, won’t release Beauty and the Beast on laser until September ’93. Discophiles shouldn’t bellow too loudly, though; in any format, Beast is a beauty. Standard cassette: A Gift set: A- Work-print laserdisc: A-