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Beauty and the Beast 3D: Tale as Bland as Time

I have a confession to make: I've never been a big fan of Beauty and the Beast. Even when I first saw it back in 1991 -- when it has being proclaimed hither and yon as one of the Walt Disney company's greatest achievements and made history by becoming the first animated feature to score a Best Picture nod -- I found myself wondering what the big deal was. And it didn't have anything to do with that conventional bit of Hollywood "wisdom" that boys don't want to watch movies about girls. Three years earlier, I had seen and loved The Little Mermaid and I thought Belle, the headstrong beauty of Beauty, was just peachy keen. I also liked Robby Benson's thundering vocals as the Beast and found the music (penned by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who died seven months before the film's release) quite good, though none of the individual tunes captured my imagination half as much as Mermaid's triple threat of "Part of Your World," "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl." But aside from those elements, Beauty struck me as pretty blah -- a serviceable version of a classic fairy tale minus that crucial touch of magic.

I experienced the same reaction after seeing the new 3D version of the film that Disney, still flush from the surprise success of The Lion King 3D, is rushing into theaters today. Although Menken and Ashman's score still holds up nicely -- it's no surprise that Beauty and the Beast became Disney's first stage show as the flow and showmanship of the music is pure Broadway -- the movie feels even slighter now than it did at the time of its initial release. Back then, the movie was praised for presenting audiences with a willful female protagonist that was firmly in control of her romantic destiny and regularly placed reading books above chasing after boys. And it's true that in that respect at least, Belle stood in stark contrast to past Disney heroines, up to and including Ariel, whose desire to join us landlubbers above the ocean waves kicked into overdrive after she laid eyes on hunky Prince Eric.

Still, the filmmakers didn't do the character any favors by swapping out that boy crazy trait for a pronounced maternalistic streak that comes across as a little creepy. Besides being utterly devoted to her father, Belle's relationship with the Beast possesses a distinctly mother/toddler dynamic, what with her teaching him how to use a spoon properly and stop throwing violent temper tantrums. Their romance also lacks spark because -- due to the fundamental set-up of the narrative, what with the evil witch's curse and steadily wilting rose -- it's always clear that he needs her far more than she needs him. Particularly when compared to some of the dynamic animated heroines that came after her -- including Mulan, Ginormica from Monsters vs. Aliens and even Rapunzel from Tangled -- today Belle can't help but seem... well, bland. With the ill-matched central couple not connecting, it's up to the supporting cast of walking, talking household items to hold our attention, but only Jerry Orbach's candelabra Lumiere makes much of an impression. (Look, I enjoy listening to Angela Lansbury's comfortingly recognizable voice as much as the next person, but Mrs. Potts has about as much personality as a tea doily.)

The other problem with the 3D version of Beauty and the Beast is the 3D itself. I'm not adamantly opposed to 3D conversions of older movies; that opening sequence of The Lion King actually looked pretty stunning in 3D and I'm very interested to see how James Cameron, the format's leading advocate, employs it in his upcoming re-release of Titanic. But Beauty and the Beast doesn't benefit at all from the added dimension. If anything, it just calls attention to flaws in the original animation, flaws that are now magnified due to the conversion process. If Disney is going to continue churning out 3D updates of all the classics in their vault, they should be more selective about the movies they pick. (For example, Fantasia in 3D might be glorious. The Jungle Book not so much.)

On the other hand, the nice thing about Disney re-releasing their older films this way is that it gives me a chance to see them with my kids on the big screen. I took my four-year-old son to The Lion King back in August and he accompanied me again to Beauty. His reaction to this one was considerably more muted, probably because he spent much of the movie freaked out by the Beast's snarly appearance and that vicious wolf attack that almost claims Belle's life. (I had forgotten how intense that scene is, particularly when your kid already isn't the world's biggest dog lover... unless it's a ghost mutt like Zero in his current favorite movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas.) He did visibly perk up during the musical numbers though, the showstopping "Be Our Guest" being the obvious favorite. (Meanwhile, I sat there humming the lyrics to "See My Vest" in my head. At least he'll be able to catch the reference when I start showing him vintage Simpsons episodes in a couple years.) Overall though, his favorite part of the entire experience was the Road Runner-esque Tangled short, starring the crowd-pleasing duo of chameleon Pascal and mighty steed Maximus, that played before the feature. Later, as we were walking home from the theater, he made a point of mentioning that he wasn't interested in seeing it again anytime soon. "I don't want the DVD," he said, which is a damning critique from a kid that's previously worn out our player through regular viewings of past favorites like The Sword in the Stone, Finding Nemo and My Neighbor Totoro. Just as well... I don't really want to watch Beauty and the Beast again anytime soon either.

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