Beauty and the Beast: Special Edition on DVD

Voices of Paige O'Hara, Robby Benson, Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers. Directed by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French). Two DVDs. 90 minutes. 1991. Walt Disney Video 786936171631. G. $29.98

For many people, the name "Disney" means cute animated characters and stories that appeal primarily to children. Featuring characters like Mrs. Potts, the talking/singing teapot, and a good deal of slapstick, Beauty and the Beast has these ingredients, but it's also intended to appeal to adults, telling a story about cruelty, kindness, the need to look beyond appearances, and, ultimately, the redeeming power of love. Beauty and the Beast was a critical as well as popular success, with six Oscar nominations (winning for Best Score and Best Song), and the Broadway musical play that was developed from the movie is currently the eighth-longest-running show in Broadway history.

I saw Beauty and the Beast when the movie was first released and I've seen the stage version, but somehow I found this Special Edition DVD version even more moving. For me, the most powerful theme involves the contrast between Belle's would-be suitor, Gaston—handsome and possessing a great voice, but cruel and thoughtless—and the Beast, frightening in appearance and gruff in manner, but with an inner goodness that Belle senses and is drawn to. It is, indeed, a "tale as old as time," told with skill and sensitivity, and enhanced immeasurably by the brilliant Menken and Ashman score.

The vocal cast of Beauty and the Beast includes the talented (and, as her appearance in the DVD supplementary materials reveals, lovely) Paige O'Hara as Belle, Robby Benson as the Beast (an unusual but effective bit of casting), Richard White (who was great in the title role of the Paper Mill Playhouse's production of the Yeston/Kopit Phantom), David Ogden Stiers (proving that playing Charles on M*A*S*H tapped only part of his talent), Jerry Orbach (who was a musical theater star before he was on TV), and Angela Lansbury, adding her special warmth as Mrs. Potts.

For this two-disc Platinum Special Edition, Disney has pulled out all the stops. Video and audio have been remastered/remixed; in addition, there are numerous interviews, a filmmakers' commentary, pop-up song lyrics for karaoke, storyboards, a featurette on the Broadway musical, various games "for the younger adventurer," a lot of material about animation techniques, and a moving tribute to Howard Ashman, who died tragically of AIDS before the movie was finished. There are also three versions of the film: the Original Theatrical Edition, the Work-in-Progress Edition shown at the 1991 New York Film Festival (of interest mostly to students of the cinema), and the Special Edition, which includes a new musical sequence, "Human Again," which was cut from the original version but was reworked for the Broadway musical. This turns out to be a very significant addition, not only because it's a catchy tune, but because it includes an important scene that shows the development of the relationship between Belle and the Beast. Odds'n'ends include a music video of the title song by "pop sensation Jump 5," which had me reaching for the "Next" button well before it was over.

Beauty and the Beast is an animated feature, with limited use of computer graphics techniques, and consequently does not have the hyper-sharp definition of, say, Shrek (a movie that, come to think of it, is another variation on the theme of inner/outer beauty), but the video transfer is exceedingly well done, and the 5.1 remix of the soundtrack is top-notch.