Like an oasis in the midst of a desert, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast came at a time when the studio needed a hit to return it to its golden age of animation. 1989’s The Little Mermaid was certainly a vast improvement over the rest of the ’80s output (innocuous and forgettable fare like The Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company), but Beauty and the Beast showed that Disney still had the ability to produce a towering classic like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Pinocchio. At this point, it seems unlikely the studio will ever see such creative heights again.
Based on the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont and certainly influenced by Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live-action version, Beauty and the Beast continued the Broadway musical-like concept of The Little Mermaid, with songwriting team Alan Menken and Howard Ashman returning to craft another set of songs. Every number in Beauty and the Beast is a gem, and although the film’s fantastical elements are largely borrowed from other sources, the original music ensures the film is not simply a cheap imitation. This Beauty shines on its own merit.
It also helps that the animation is largely fantastic, with the animators integrating computer animation with hand-drawn in an unprecedented way. The famous ballroom scene is where it’s most apparent, and it remains an impressive achievement even if one gets the feeling this scene is not going to age well, as the computer generated background looks more and more outdated every time I see it.
Beauty and the Beast’s grand, majestic quality combined with its perfectly pitched humor and beautifully crafted songs makes for one of Disney’s greatest films. The Blu-ray release absolutely gives the film its due in every category.
The Blu-ray Disc
Beauty and the Beast is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This is an absolutely stunning visual presentation, with every color appearing lush and consistent. Fine animation detail is much more apparent here than any other previous release. There’s literally nothing to complain or nitpick about — no apparent digital artifacts, no inconsistencies and no sharpness problems. Animation on Blu-ray can’t look much better than this.
The 7.1 DTS-HD audio presentation is wholly enveloping, with ambient sound present throughout the film and dialogue taking charge in a clean and clear way. Ashman and Menken’s songs sound absolutely superb, as do the subtleties of every sound effect.
Despite a general annoyance with Disney’s unnecessarily complicated menu design (some features are labeled as “Recommended,” some are lumped into different categories and even though the extras are spread across two discs, all of them are listed on both disc menus, with the helpful note that the feature is actually on the other disc), there are some fantastic new bonus features, the crown jewel of which is “Beyond Beauty,” a six-part featurette on the production history that allows for seamless branching of extra featurettes. It’s an excellent look at the transition period within Disney at the time, and it’s presented with great care.
Another great feature is “Composing a Classic,” which features Menken talking about the music and his late songwriting partner Ashman, who died of AIDS shortly before the film was released, as well as playing some selections. It’s a classy and fascinating piece. Also new are a storyboarded alternate opening and deleted scene.
During the film, one can choose either to watch the theatrical cut or the extended version, which includes the number “Human Again.” Storyreel picture-in-picture, an audio commentary by producer Don Hahn and directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise and a sing-along track provide more ways in which to experience the feature film.
On the more superfluous side, new features include a featurette on actors who’ve performed the show on Broadway, where we get to hear throwaway insights from the likes of Donny Osmond and one of the Jonas Brothers, several interactive games and a music video by Jordin Sparks. You can always count on Disney to clutter up excellent releases with crap like this.
The Blu-ray also includes all of the bonus features from the previous DVD release (there’s a lot of Celine Dion in these, so be careful), which remain in standard def.
In addition to the two Blu-ray discs housing the film and the extras, a third DVD disc includes the film and the audio commentary.
The Bottom Line
The Beauty and the Beast Blu-ray is stunning in all regards, and though there’s some stepping around the potholes to do in the extras category, this is a very fine release from Disney.