Walt Disney Studios has been so open about the behind-the-scenes processes of its animated films that there wouldn't seem to be many surprises in store on the new DVD edition of Beauty And The Beast. The double-disc set is the second of Disney's now-annual "buy me for Christmas" Platinum Editions (trailing last year's Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs), and it's filled with the standard array of production art, employee interviews, and brand promotion. Even the set's most unusual feature—the work-in-progress version of Beauty that caused a sensation at the 1991 New York Film Festival—plays like an extended example of the drawing-board-to-screen demonstrations that have become standard DVD fare. Then, halfway through the special-edition commentary track, composer Alan Menken offers an eye-opening bit of trivia, explaining that the film's score was recorded live in the studio, with the cast and orchestra performing together. On the film's release, critics rightly raved over Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman's "maximum Broadway" songs, which advanced plot and character with unshakable melodies. Menken's comment on the recording redirects some of that praise to the cast, whose face-to-face interaction cued the soundtrack's immediacy. The other commentators (producer Don Hahn and directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale) also point out that Beauty was created on the quick by a team of at-their-peak animators, many of whom went on to head up productions at Disney and elsewhere. Coming right after the surprise critical and commercial success of 1989's The Little Mermaid, Beauty showed a studio with renewed confidence, and it reached an audience willing to believe that cartoons could be great. The film's record-breaking run can be traced to the sweetness of its story (a prince in beastly form imprisons a bookish beauty who melts his heart), but the presentation makes the film work. So tightly edited that it's practically a trailer, Beauty distills the fairy-tale trappings, wacky sidekicks, and broad emotions of classic Disney into a potent enchantment, where the outsiders-need-love-too and what-goes-around-comes-around themes that have always been plain in Disney animation become meaningful again through bold, unabashed restatement. What the DVD bonus features don't reveal is that Disney spent much of the '90s trying to sprinkle Beauty flavor over stories that wouldn't hold the seasoning, and while the studio had found considerable box-office and home-video success, the films have mostly declined in quality since. The result is that, 11 years later, Beauty And The Beast looks like a singular, bolt-from-the-blue triumph.
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