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Beauty and the Beast: Diamond Edition (Blu-ray Review)

11 Oct, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$39.99 Blu-ray combo pack
Rated ‘G.’
Voices of Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden-Stiers.

Given all the time it takes to prep a home release, ballyhoo it in advance and finally make it available for consumption, I’m never certain how much coincidence is involved when synergetic releases from different distributors come out at the same time. But it has just happened again, this time with beauty-beast epics made 58 years apart.

The older title is Warner Home Entertainment’s new Blu-ray of the original King Kong. The newer one is Disney’s animated masterpiece of the literal Beauty and the Beast — which, for starters, is a movie that can easily be mentioned in the same breath as Jean Cocteau’s live-action 1946 version (an all-timer if there ever was one). Disney’s beaut was also the first (and along with last year’s Up, only) animated feature to earn an Oscar nomination for best picture — and, judging from anecdotal evidence, likely the first animated feature a lot of adults went to see for themselves without dragging along a child for cover. To be sure, it was more of a date movie than the film that beat it for the Oscar: The Silence of the Lambs.

The new releases make Kong and Beauty look as good as they imaginably can, though obviously, the playing field isn’t level. On this note, I was especially interested to check out Kong’s cosmetics on Blu-ray, given that a) the movie has a lot of soft and grainy photography in the first place; b) the original negative doesn’t exist; and c) that one probably can’t expect the world, print-wise, out of too many RKO titles with 77 years on them. On the other hand, Warner’s 2009 Blu-ray of no-spring-chicken Casablanca (one of its own titles) looked better on Blu-ray than one could have even imagined.

Kong turns out to be a fine job under the circumstances — just not of first-rank “demonstration” quality, which Disney’s Beauty absolutely is. Not even 20 years old, it predictably pops of the screen via a fresh remastering, with audio that makes the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman score resonate better than ever. I re-ran the Belle-Beast dancing scene four times, and majestic is the only word. It’s startling to hear in Beyond Beauty — a backgrounder documentary that’s probably the standout of many bonus extras here — that there was a time during the conception when this version of the tale wasn’t even going to be a musical.

I didn’t find the busy Beauty menu the easiest in history to navigate, but maybe I was having an off-day to match the Beast’s off-life. But there’s wall-to wall historical illumination packed into the set’s two discs (also included is a standard DVD of the movie). It’s now clear that the film came early enough in the rejuvenation of Disney animation for members of the team to have been still flexing newly formed muscles — but also so late that it marked the last time that so many of the division’s superstars worked together on the same project. After Beauty’s success, the studio elected to up production, and key personnel splintered off into separate units for separate projects.

The memories, discussed in full here, come rushing back. How Disney showed parts of a rough print (including pencil drawings) to a small group of New York press (myself included), with voice-of-Belle Paige O’Hara there in person to sing a song or two from the score. How lyricist and executive producer Howard Ashman — perhaps the consummate “brain” of the project — was in severely declining health (he died at 40, eight months before the film’s release). How Disney made the radical decision to premiere an unfinished version (those pencil drawings again) at the New York Film Festival, a successful gamble that even today production principals can’t believe they dared.

Though this release includes an alternate longer version with an extra musical number, the original theatrical version has perfect rhythmic balance in terms of song placement and in the way the tunes advance a story with many live-wire supporting characters — but which, when you come down to it, has to be largely carried by two principals (the way Kong is, unless you’re somehow into Bruce Cabot, the ape’s human competition).

Getting back to synergy, someone could have a fabulous beauty-beast party running both movies on the same evening (even together, they run just a little over three hours, total). What’s more and in another realm, Warner has generated even more of the s-word — this time purely in-house. By presumed design amid Kong’s release, its “on-demand” unit has just unearthed 1956’s tough-to-see The Animal World — for which Kong’s Willis O’Brien supervised its stop-motion animation of dinosaurs, World’s most famous scene by far.

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