There was a lovely moment, before the bath mats and key chains came to seem more important than the movies, when the Disney imprimatur promised and delivered magic. That moment was in 1991, with the release of Beauty and the Beast. Two years before, The Little Mermaid had shown what the new regime of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg was capable of, mixing a bit of old Walt (young heroes with single parents; goofy anthropomorphic sidekicks) with new flash (faster pacing, showstopper musical numbers). With Beauty, the company perfected that approach, adding throwaway wit, visual splendor, and characterizations that went beyond craft into the arena of art.

Above all, the movie had soul, in the wary hopes of its bookish Belle, in the peevish self-absorption of its Beast, in the way these two grew, inch by storybook inch, toward mutual love. Subsequent Disney features have specialized in fizzy horseplay (Aladdin), primal New Age schmaltz (The Lion King), PC revisionism (the underrated Pocahontas), baroque teen angst (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and self-referential satire (Hercules), but the steel girders of The Formula have always been visible under the beguilingly animated skin. Beauty and the Beast, though, remains as calculated as weather; there’s a generosity of spirit blowing through the movie that, in retrospect, must have been a corporate fluke. I have no idea how they did it; all I know is that I’m bawling like a baby five minutes in, as soon as I hear the opening strains of ”Belle.”

Whereas Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas leaves a viewer dry of eye and heart. The movie is the latest of Disney’s canny direct-to-video sequels, others of which have included two Aladdin follow-ups: 1994’s The Return of Jafar and last year’s Aladdin and the King of Thieves. It’s a great idea if you’re an uncritical kid or a Disney stockholder: Budgets are kept low by farming out the work — to Australian and Japanese shops for the Aladdin films and the new Canadian TV Animation division for this — but the familiar characters ensure that the franchise will be profitably extended (and, in fact, both Aladdin sequels were huge video hits).

So who cares if Enchanted Christmas has almost none of the magic of Beauty and the Beast? Well, anyone who felt the original touched emotions that many live-action, ”grown-up” films reach for and miss. Even the villain is less than human this go-round; in place of the vainglorious hunk Gaston, we get an evil … pipe organ.

The sequel, oddly, takes place during the original. It seems that while Belle (voiced again by Paige O’Hara) is imprisoned in the castle — but before she and the Beast (Robby Benson) fall in love — she decides to warm the place up with a Christmas celebration. The enchanted household retainers — Lumiere the candlestick, Cogsworth the clock, Mrs. Potts the teapot — are all for the idea, but the grinchy Beast hates the holiday and is backed up by Forte, the court composer who has been transformed into a swaggering, computer-animated organ (Tim Curry, pulling out all the stops with lubricious vocal hauteur). And — how’s this for motivation? — since Forte now has his boss’ ear, he wants to stay an organ.

To quote Christmas‘ Jewish Axe: ”Oy.” (Actually, the Jewish axe seems solely and clumsily created to blurt ”Happy Hanukkah” in one scene; I waited in vain for an andiron to pop up and wish the characters a merry Kwanza). But the tape’s problems don’t stop with a bad guy who’s bolted to a wall. Four new songs, by Rachel Portman (Emma) and Don Black (Sunset Boulevard), are pleasantly forgettable (the exception is Curry’s delectably nasty ”Don’t Fall in Love”). The dialogue has no zing — Cogsworth telling some surly goblets ”Don’t whine, glasses” is about as good as it gets — and though set pieces like an ice-floe rescue pack punch, the characters are drawn far more crudely than in the original. Belle, in particular, has been given enormous, infantile eyes that render her more ”cute” in theory but less charmingly human in practice. Christmas bats .500 with its key new characters: a castle decorator-turned-Christmas-tree angel (note the marketing genius — the character’s already a trinket) is sassily voiced by Bernadette Peters, but you probably won’t recognize Paul Reubens’ voice as Forte’s simpy piccolo sidekick (which may be just as well, given certain solos in Pee-wee’s past).

All in all, a pretty soggy Christmas fruitcake. Will your kids eat it up? Sure, and that makes Enchanted Christmas worth a rental. But Disney really wants you to put this sucker in your permanent collection. And next to Beauty and the Beast — still the company’s crown jewel — Christmas looks like a lump of coal. Beauty: A+ Christmas: C-

Beauty and the Beast (1991)
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