This 3D retro-fit of Disney's retelling of the eighteenth-century French fairy tale is pure cinematic joy.
The recent year-long Disney 50 season at London's BFI Southbank offered a rare opportunity to re-visit the studio’s animated canon in its entirety, with almost all of the features playing from 35mm prints.
The tangible, analogue textures evident in the marriage of Disney’s traditional, hand-drawn visuals with the grain-hued liquidity of projected celluloid, imbued the films with a greater vibrancy and charisma than the current crop of digitally restored re-issues and pin sharp Blu-rays could ever lay claim to.
To a degree, one could argue that the painstaking digital re-inking, colour correction and computer enhancement of background plates serves simply to homogenise the canon, applying a modern aesthetic standard only made possible through advances in technology.
While it’s perhaps easy to assume, retrospectively, that greater efforts towards preservation may have tempered the need for restoration, it remains the case that undertaking such a task using anything but the tools available at the time to 'fix' perceived problems veers dangerously close to George Lucas territory, and ultimately tantamount to artistic and historical revisionism.
With young audiences now weaned on the visual pyrotechnics of CG-animation as the main staple of their cinematic diet, Disney might be forgiven for worrying as to whether their untinkered-with back catalogue can stand up theatrically against the tide of competition, even as they move their cyclical release strategy away from the multiplexes and into the living room, now saving only their biggest hitters for the big screen.
The recent success of Tangled may have demonstrated that there’s still life in the kind of traditional storytelling at which Disney can excel, but to what extent did 3D and CGI factor into its success? The studio’s previous feature, the hand-drawn The Princess and the Frog took less than half as much at the box office, and of the twenty highest grossing animated features of all time, only two were traditionally animated, with just one of those made by Disney.
As the first of only three animated features to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, Beauty and the Beast certainly has more than enough good will behind it to warrant its theatrical re-release. The current trend for 3D retro-fitting shows little sign of slowing down (I, Robot anyone?), and the studio’s biggest success, The Lion King, slaughtered the competition on opening weekend when it debuted last September in IMAX-powered 3D.
It may well be the case that it’s the chance to see an old favourite back on the big screen rather than the 3D experience itself that’s drawing in the crowds a second time around, but until James Cameron is willing to chance a further $18m to put this theory to the test with a retro-fit of his debut, Piranha II: The Spawning, we’ll never really know.
With Beauty and the Beast’s limited re-release hooked on its 3D 'upgrade', it’s reassuring to discover that the conversion is such a success, perhaps even more so than that of The Lion King. As expected, the scenes which fare less well as a result of the process are those that stuck out to begin with, a result of the studio’s early experiments in wire-frame computer animation that began with The Rescuers Down Under.
With the rest of the film made up of traditionally animated drawings layered on acetate, as each level is separated through the 3D process, the effect is at times not dissimilar to a pop-up picture book, adding real dimensionality to the fairy-tale world in a way the visual show-boating of The Lion King 3D struggled to.
The film itself remains an absolute joy, this in spite of the mostly formulaic template to which it adheres. The result of a ruthlessly focussed effort by new head of animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, to reinstate the telling of traditional stories synonymous with the studio's golden years, Beauty and the Beast could well be considered one of Disney’s most risk averse productions.
Taking its peerless musical cues from Broadway under the guidance of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors), and a welcome number of its visual motifs borrowed from Jean Cocteau, whose La Belle et la Bête remains the definitive cinematic telling of the eighteenth-century French fairy tale, the deftly sketched characters (in both senses of the word) and adherence to narrative archetype push all the right emotional buttons. It’s the Rocky of animated movies if you will, but none the worse for it.
An old favourite converted to 3D? Could go either way...
Excellent conversion, the film is always a joy.
Unsubtle perhaps, but never fails to hit the right notes.