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Beauty And The Beast: 25th Anniversary Walt Disney Signature Collection

Walt Disney Feature Animation (1991/2002), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (September 20 2016), Blu-ray Disc plus DVD and Digital HD code, 84/92 mins plus supplements, 1080p high definition 1.78:1 widescreen, 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, Rated G, Retail: $39.99

Storyboard:

Just before one of the Studio’s new-fangled live-action remakes comes along, celebrate the 25th anniversary of Disney’s only animated film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, the story of a young woman, Belle, who slowly falls for the charms of a reclusive prince, cursed as a hideous beast…

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The Sweatbox Review:

The Walt Disney Signature Collection line returns, after the debut of its initial offering in the more than appropriate first and fairest of them all, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs last year, with arguably the most important of the Studio’s 1990s renaissance films and the only traditionally animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture, Beauty And The Beast. Now celebrating its 25th year – and about to get one of the Studio’s current live-action makeovers next spring – its addition to the Signature series proves to be a mix of anniversary opportunity and company synergy, when it was perhaps hoped that the Signatures would focus, chronologically, on the films that Uncle Walt personally produced, including those still MIA on Blu-ray Package Features of the 1940s.

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The somewhat puzzling inclusion of a non-Walt title in a collection that makes a point of promoting his name in the largely now Walt-free Disney of today is explained away in this package with a tenuous but plausible link, and that it follows Snow White shares something of a tonal similarity. Indeed, it’s often been standard practice to compare Beauty to Snow White, by way of its story approach and suggestion of Beauty being the new generation of artists’ answer to Walt’s first feature, and it’s tough to break those assumptions when it became only the second fully animated film to be significantly recognised by the motion picture Academy after the achievement of Snow White was acknowledged by the famous full-sized and seven miniature statuettes honor presented to Walt by Shirley Temple.

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Even Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Walt’s venerable Nine Old Men, amusingly admitted something along the lines of Beauty being “almost as good as what we used to do” after seeing the film. But, for me, it was The Little Mermaid that ultimately proves to be the new generation’s Snow White, the film where the artists set out to prove and push themselves, learning by mistakes, adapting technology for their needs, and creating a true fairytale classic that could stand with the best of them. The film after Beauty, Aladdin, would become their knockabout comedy counterpart to Dumbo, while The Lion King’s circle of life obviously owes much to Bambi’s naturalistic take, and you don’t need to look far to find the equivalent to Fantasia!

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So what would that actually make Beauty And The Beast? Well I think it has to be Pinocchio, still perhaps the most revered animated film – quite rightly described as an epic in JB Kaufman’s excellent recent tome on its making – to be produced in the pre-digital age. That film built on Walt’s success with Snow White, while his artists ploughed everything they had learned on that feature into Pinocchio. The film’s production was stopped to refine story points and characters, and new technological advances were made with the Multiplane Camera. It’s true that the film was eventually released to only middling reviews in 1940, but over time it has become recognised for its near-perfect animation performances, and is often seen as the epitome of the animated art form.

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It’s a comparison that sits well with Beauty, a film that the new artists were able to create from building on what they had learned with Mermaid: the first version was scrapped, while new camera technology saw a move from traditionally ink and painted cels to Disney’s in-house Computer Animation (or Assisted) Production System, which scanned the artwork and stored it as high resolution digital files (itself a scientific Oscar winner for the developmental team at Disney Feature Animation and Pixar). The film was released to much more acclaim than Pinocchio had enjoyed first time out, but this was due in part to an unprecedented event that had occurred several months earlier, when a work in progress edition had been screened at the New York Film Festival, which created much word of mouth that Disney had topped Mermaid with a film that was really along the lines of what Walt would have crafted.

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Of course – and the main reason the film now sits in this Signature line – Walt himself apparently tried to develop the Beauty And The Beast story, but it was either down to a lack of being able to nail the plot or a wariness of attempting another fairytale after the failure of the ambitious Sleeping Beauty that meant the project never came to fruition. Indeed, the finally released version differs from the original plot considerably: a more faithful version can be found in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bête, which first suggested objects in the Beast’s castle could be enchanted and that the Disney film takes to the next level in the characterizations of the Beast’s staff. They, like the Beast, have been placed under an enchantresses’ spell (although I’m not sure if it’s ever explained why they take on the forms they do)…a spell that can only be broken, as in all the good fairytales, by love’s true kiss.

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It’s certainly a tale as old as time, but the handling is just superb, bringing back the Broadway talents of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to provide an intricately interweaved song score that’s leaps and bounds ahead of what would have been found in animated films of the past. Indeed, such was the success of the film and the music that, when one critic suggested the then in-decline shows on the Great White Way wouldn’t be floundering if they had half the wit and charm of Beauty’s score, Disney was quick to capitalize in converting the film to the stage, pioneering the current concept of “moviecals” that now dominate New York’s theater district and London’s West End theaters, and which Disney itself has largely led the way with in the many various adaptations (including Mermaid, Mary Poppins, Tarzan and Aladdin) to have come since.

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As for the film itself, its twenty-fifth year anniversary means it has now become such a classic that it doesn’t even need the word “contemporary” before it. That it was such a hit at the time is down to the mature storytelling, from before when Disney sidekicks were just shoehorned in to please the kids, and an elevated level of filmmaking (the producing/directing team of Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale and Don Hahn would progress even further with The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, an even more elaborately produced and profound Disney feature even if the signing gargoyles remove some of the prestige). With an inevitable live-action retelling, featuring Harry Potter‘s Emma Watson as Belle, on the horizon, it will be interesting to see which elements have been retained and if the supposedly wider scope will actually benefit the story or feel like a pale imitation of it.

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Indeed, in the time since audiences have been entranced by its magic either on the big screen or television by way of VHS, LaserDisc and DVD, Beauty And The Beast is also a perennial title that the Studio has sometimes been close to over-egging, from the admittedly smart stage musical and an Imax special edition with extra footage to the muddled 3D theatrical reissue and Blu-ray release that crossed each other and now results in this third HD disc edition in less than five years. And it’s a tenuous release at best, sort of celebrating a milestone anniversary but arriving under a not-totally authentic-feeling banner when we all know it’s really only coming along again now as a prime example of corporate synergy at its best and attempting to remind us of what we loved first time around to drum up excitement for the new version next year. Thank goodness, then, that at its heart remains a film that comes fully recommended for certainly being as genuinely good as the Disney classics of old.

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Is This Thing Loaded?

Third time around for Beauty on Blu-ray and – just as with the inaugural Signature title Snow White before it – it’s a case of diminishing returns after packed Platinum DVD and Diamond BD editions. For its second Diamond title, Disney pulled out the stops to fill a two disc set, with the 3D edition adding even to that and truly providing one of the most comprehensive and definitive packages detailing a Disney film’s production. Once again, the Signature line loses much, compresses other elements, and adds just a token amount of fresh material to be a fairly solid edition for newcomers, but a woefully lacking for those that know what they’re missing. Most obviously is the configuration of the main feature itself, presenting the revamped Imax version of the “original theatrical edition” and its “extended special edition”, along with a new Sing-Along version, but this also loses the earlier “work in progress” preview and eventual 3D reissue.

The lack of true 1991 theatrical and work in progress editions aside, this leaves room for a much-anticipated (note the sarcasm) Sing-Along Version, which is totally redundant in both wasting disc space (albeit sparingly, since it likely branches off for the songs only) but in its presentation, animating the lyrics with so much pizazz all over the screen (in the chorus numbers) that they aren’t always instantly caught if you don’t know the songs already, and sometimes “popping” a little out of sync. Not only could a subtitle track have worked just as well (as has been done in the past) but there isn’t any specific chapter indexing just to leap to those sequences, and is only an option for the theatrical cut, so those Human Again fans are out of luck. It’s a strange idea that feels like it’s to back up an added bullet point on the back of the box, but I’d have rather just switched on the subtitles and kept the space for the in progress preview cut of the movie.

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The first of the new features proper, Always Belle takes just over ten minutes to profile and speak with vocalist Paige O’Hara, who reminisces her 25 years of association with her character, from her growing up wanting to be a singer and Broadway career to her initial casting for the movie, and continuing her Disney connections through additional spin-offs and recordings as Belle, alongside a second career as a Disney fine artist. Naturally personable, it’s always fun to hear such stories from a retrospective angle and, best of all, is the generous amount of studio recording booth footage, including a lovely tribute to Howard Ashman. His songwriting partner and score composer Alan Menken is given due praise himself in a near-twenty minute offering, Menken And Friends: 25 Years Of Muiscal Inspiration.

About as fluffy and soft as you would expect from a featurette that gathers current Disney songsmiths Robert and Kristen Lopez, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Menken’s more recent collaborator Stephen Schwartz to wax lyrical about working with and being inspired by the man himself, this is largely a warm pat on the back for the composer – and quite rightly – as well as a a big love-in from everyone else who all know each other, especially with Menken at the piano and always ready to jump in with a song. But there’s also some good nourishment in here once the gushing is out of the way, from Schwartz’s decIsion to come write lyrics for Disney movies to much analysing of the film’s score. However, the 25 Years moniker somewhat forgets Menken’s many achievements from before 1991, especially The Little Mermaid, which arguably brought Broadway to Disney first and is touched upon here, making the title somewhat confusing. But it’s a great little waltz down memory lane and always fascinating to hear how they inspire each other.

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This supposedly being a Walt Disney Signature Collection title, the tenuous link to including Uncle Walt’s stamp on a release of the very 1990s Beauty And The Beast is found in a pretty stretching Walt, Fairytales And Beauty And The Beast, running under ten minutes. While Disney may have looked at many such stories over the years, and did suggest turning this story itself into an animated film, this clip does almost fall over itself in attempting to get us on board with the idea that Walt wanted to make the film, dragging out his European influences and the work of Kay Nielsen for other unproduced films as The Little Mermaid to fill out the running time, before reverting back to covering the early stages of the eventual film as we know it. One key piece of Nielsen art, recently discovered, becomes a main talking-point in the second half of this clip, before a rather self-aware tip of the hat to the Studio’s new live-action trend of remaking it’s classic animated features rounds out an often strange package.

The Recording Sessions offers up more of O’Hara and her castmates in the vocal booth, as they run through moments of their signature songs and choice lines of dialogue. It’s a rare treat to see this stuff, and all very nicely married up to the final film, though disappointing in that it lasts less than four minutes. Conversely, running far too long at just over five minutes, a 25 Fun Facts About Beauty And The Beast has a couple of assumedly Disney Channel “stars” whizzing through a bunch of trivia in the usual zippy style. Now, I’m no old fogey who can’t see the value in these quick-cut, fast and funny takes – and indeed I have been a fan of them in the past – but the two kids this time around are just plain annoying (especially the guy), many of the “facts” are tenuous at best, and there clearly aren’t 25 of them, splitting up a few to make up their tally. I’ve liked these kinds of things in the past, but this won’t get a revisit from me.

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Of course, the big reason we’re being given this new edition of the film is to drum up more awareness of the upcoming live-action version coming next Spring, although the much ballyhooed Sneak Peek Of The Live-Action Beauty And The Beast will surely disappoint those coming to this edition for that alone: lasting less than just a scant minute and already leaked online, the only real point of interest is to include the names of original film and stage producers Don Hahn and Thomas Schumacher, respectively, as executive producers, and lyricist Tim Rice in the credits, suggesting that this revamp will come closer to the Broadway production than the animated film. For those hoping for the first real peek at the highly anticipated feature by way of a five or even ten minute behind the scenes clip, this will be a crushing blow, especially since it warrants such high placement on the packaging.

Carried over from Platinum and Diamond editions of before, a feature Audio Commentary, featuring Hahn, Wise, Trousdale and an inserted-in Menken, is among the last of the offerings here, and it remains a terrific track, with a lively discussion taking on board all the things one might wish to know about, including the thoughts behind the Imax edition and how many of the film’s scenes were achieved. With the focus on that large-format reissue, the conversation is only available to accompany that extended cut, but the ten years later timing means the participants have a nice retrospective approach. Wrapping things up is the usual bunch of Sneak Peeks, which covers the Disney Movies not-quite-Anywhere service, upcoming sure-to-be-juggernaut Moana in theaters, and the home video release for the underwhelming but money-making Finding Dory, plus the teaser for the new live-action Beauty And The Beast (bizarrely almost lost in the added menu option previews) along with Spielberg’s The BFG, Elena Of Avalor and the usual Disney-branded spots.

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WHAT’S MISSING?

An actual Preview of additional Platinum and Diamond Edition bonus features is included on the disc, but that only seems like a poke in the eye to those who shudder to remember the awful Disney’s Virtual Vault experiment that lasted a scant two or so titles and those who want to watch all of their supplements on their big-screen TVs or projector displays instead of on an internet-connected device. As such, this one-minute clip promises over five hours of extras, including the additional Work In Progress edition, but not the 3D reissue, with the rest of the extras available only online through the Disney Movies Anywhere portal…not a truly bad thing in itself, but once again, DMA isn’t exactly a truly “anywhere” proposition.

So you’ll be wanting and needed to keep your Platinum and Diamond sets, especially for the awesome Lumiere-hosted Diamond menus, plus Menken and Hahn discussing the songs and score, a set of deleted and alternate scenes including an completely different opening, and a fluffy but interesting overview of the Broadway production of Beauty And The Beast. A pair of music videos didn’t add much but added to the original hit single version does give an overview of how music styles have changed over the film’s release, but the dropping of a full second disc of extras means the loss of the extensive documentary Beyond Beauty: The Untold Stories Behind The Making Of Beauty And The Beast, – “extensive” in that selecting the many additional featurettes that popped up throughout ultimately expanded the full viewing time to almost four hours, including four original Laugh-O-Gram shorts, additional Disney cartoons and copious image galleries.

Set-top games have never been high on my list of essentials, but some of the previous Beauty And The Beast inclusions have been better than most, especially an Enchanted Musical Challenge, and both Platinum and Diamond discs contained a plethora of additional documentaries (The Story Behind The Story, Disney Animation Magic), developmental sequences (the Maurice version of Be Our Guest, and Human Again from before it was cut and then added in again), animation and pencil tests, plus theatrical trailers including the original preview and Imax reissue, and additional image galleries with enhanced audio.

The 1991 release also heralded the David Ogden Stiers hosted TV special The Making Of Beauty And The Beast, available on the CAV LaserDisc but still not yet carried over to DVD or Blu-ray, when the 25th anniversary aspect of this edition provides the perfect chance to revisit just such a time capsule piece. Likewise, it would have been great to hear, now, from some other of the big names involved, particularly how the role of Mrs Potts has brought Angela Lansbury to continuing new generations (how about a clip of her singing at one of the Disney screenings?), and where is her screen son Chip thesedays? It’s lovely to hear from O’Hara on this new disc, but equally would have been interesting to hear more from her co-stars too. The new extras do interest, but at the expense of loosing so much goodness from before.

Case Study:

Just two titles into the Walt Disney Signature Collection and the line has, as Disney has done with so many others in the past, switched gears from its initial offering of Snow White from last year. Gone is the pure, simple and elegant white spine, while the sideways title treatment is replaced with a logo that feels more in tune with the live-action movie coming along soon. The Walt Disney signature “stamp” is a tenuous link at best anyway, and this release seems more interested in promoting itself as a 25th Anniversary Edition over anything else: the Signature name isn’t really to be found anywhere else other than on on the front of the box, and not on the disc itself. The sleeve itself is otherwise neat and tidy, but with a super-young looking Belle who looks off-model or ten years younger, while the slipcase is so super-glossy that it may boggle your eyes if held under the wrong light! A standard definition DVD is also included, along with a fancy Digital HD download card that gives the code away for that and Movie Reward points.

Ink And Paint:

If there’s anything to say about this release it’s that it’s way too colorful! The last Blu-ray I thought was pushing the colors enough but, while this seems to reuse the same transfers, the colors possibly look even more saturated than before. The way Beauty And The Beast has been presented over the years has always been a matter for huge debate. Created at a 1.66:1 ratio, the original theatrical presentation would have cropped the top and bottom for a 1.85:1 frame. On video, LaserDisc provided the best source, offering a letterboxed 1.66 ratio as intended, along with a suitable color palette. Released to Imax screens, huge portions of the movie were reanimated to take the magnified image into account, with the Human Again sequence, featuring the cast cleaning up the castle, meaning that the second half of the film’s backgrounds had to be changed from dirty to clean.

When the film debuted on DVD, the return to 1.85:1 framing was obviously too tight, suggesting that a less-than 1.66 width had been used as a basis (the same, incidentally, that has happened with Mary Poppins on DVD). Worse still, the colors appeared washed out, or at least brightened up beyond the original version, looking more like a Disney direct-to-video title than an Oscar-nominated theatrical feature. That disc also offered the three different editions of the movie, but space demanded that, post the Human Again sequence, the rest of the movie, either in theatrical or special edition form, basically played the cleaned up version. Thankfully, this Signature edition retains the quasi-hybrid of the Diamond disc that at least more closely echoes the theatrical cut, even if the branching means the original original theatrical cut is now a thing of memory, unless you are lucky enough to have retained a CAV LaserDisc.

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Now as then, instead of the cleaned up castle, the film does revert to how things looks originally, even if there are a few other tweaks, though the original end credit scroll has been inserted, with a bit of aged gateweave, as opposed to the “flat” credits from the Imax release. It’s still not, ultimately, a huge deal, but it’s not the Original Theatrical Edition either. If you can live with that, then you’ll be pleased to know that at least the film looks perfect – perhaps a little too perfect, with such clarity to the lines that they often ring (is that a hint of edge-enhancement?) and colors that really do feel more vibrant than I remember them on theatrical or Laser release. Again as before, the 1.78:1 ratio adds more image info back in, somewhat confirming that we’re seeing the original 1.66 width with a little cropping top and bottom to fill the hi-def frame, which makes it less tight than the DVD.

Further changes to the Theatrical and Special Edition cuts include additional animation tweaks added in from the eventual 3D reissue, and the recent replacement of the blue Disney castle for the current Wonderful World Of Disney styled update along with the Steamboat Willie animation logo is again intact here. Ultimately the film looks great – apart from one or two shots where Mrs Potts’ rouge looks like clown painted spots – and if you’re happy with forgoing the Original Theatrical Version as you really originally saw it, even with this disc’s 25th anniversary retrospective approach, and are pleased with the (relatively minor, it has to be said) changes the film has undergone since then, then this Blu-ray re-do for one of Disney’s best films should satisfy.

Scratch Tracks:

Happily, Beauty’s sound is an area that provokes much less criticism, even if the Platinum DVD did delete Robbie Benson’s famous stuttering of a line of dialogue from the Beast that was among one of the reasons that I loved the movie. The Diamond BD reinstated that intentional mistake, and it’s that same 7.1 DTS Master Audio track that features on this 25th Anniversary Edition. This mix literally sings, giving your system a workout with sound coming from all directions and a lovely atmosphere to the locations that I hadn’t really noticed before. As before, and in addition to the English track, French and Spanish subs and dubs are included in various formats.

Final Cut:

Second title in to the Signature line and it’s clear Disney don’t really have an idea where they’re going with their new series, other than to bring back a given title with a new Digital HD bolt-on and a handful of retrospective extras that lose the more authentic and archival supplements of previous editions. Certainly the line isn’t the kind of chronological collection of films that Walt himself produced in the thirty years between Snow White and The Jungle Book and it’ll be investing to see how future releases of the more modern films attempt to get us to believe the Walt connection. The previous Platinum DVD contained various issues to overcome even if its extras package was robust, while the Diamond BD as about as perfect as Disney discs come, even if it wasn’t totally all-encompassing and the movie itself carried over some of the more recent changes to the film.

With those same transfers of the “original” cut and the extended edition, those questions are still up in the air, and although it all looks predictably good, there’s just so much missing in terms of extras from before that the Diamond remains the option to go for. However, with that disc now hard to find, this makes for a decent substitute, even if the gloss can’t hid the fact the extras are lightweight and lacking depth. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say, and this is far from being an ugly disc, but it is a little rough, and indicates that the Walt Disney Signature line isn’t the prestigious collection we might have hoped for and will in turn be a watered down reprise of the Platinum and Diamond sets of before. As with Snow White, the film is the thing, but it’s still a shame that the Studio doesn’t seem to be interested in truly presenting its illustrious past in anything approaching definitive editions.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?


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