BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

The Disney company is giving us all a wonderful New Year’s present by issuing a bigger, spiffier version of its ten-year old masterpiece, and you should respond with a resolution to see it. “Beauty and the Beast,” still the only animated feature ever nominated for the best picture Oscar–and well deserving of that honor, even though it might soon have company–reappears in enhanced form, digitally remastered and resplendent on the giant IMAX screen, and sounding wonderful when played through that format’s incredibly powerful sound system. Moreover, it’s been lengthened through the addition of a musical number, “Human Again,” which was written for the original 1991 version but unheard until its inclusion in the later Broadway adaptation; it’s now been lovingly animated and seamlessly integrated into the film, and proves of equal quality to the much-beloved numbers already found there.

The new “Beauty and the Beast” runs 94 minutes (as opposed to 85 in the first cut), but it’s every bit as lean and perfectly gauged as it ever was. What’s remarkable about it–especially in comparison to a recent Disney effort like “Atlantis: The Lost Continent,” with which it shares directors–is that not a moment in it seems wasted. Every shot lasts precisely as long as it should, and each segues effortlessly into the next. The movie remains an absolute, unqualified delight, without a weak stretch or an unwanted second. And now it looks and sounds crisper and clearer than ever.

After the passing of a decade it’s now clear that “Beauty” represents the summit of a second golden age of traditional Disney animation, the one that began with “The Little Mermaid” (1989) and continued through “Aladdin” (1992). For all its success “The Lion King” (1994), which followed this masterful trio (all by the inspired songwriting team of Ashman and Menken), represented the beginning of a decline which has continued until now. The finest Disney animated productions since then have been in the newer CGI mode–the “Toy Story” films, “A Bug’s Life” and, more recently, “Monsters, Inc.” (Just compare the latter to the disappointing “Atlantis.”) A more conventionally-drawn piece like “The Emperor’s New Groove” can still be quite enjoyable, but the future now seems to lie with the likes of “Chicken Run” and “Shrek.” Perhaps in its genre “Beauty and the Beast” will never again be equaled (though that’s what was said in the mid-1980s about the animated films of the first Disney golden age–and it proved to be a mistake). In any case, it’s certainly a blessing to be able to revisit this joyous film in so splendid a form on the big screen. Don’t miss it, and by all means, take the whole family.