FILM / Disney hurtles back to form

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The Independent Culture
AT LAST, a proper heroine. To all of us reared on Walt Disney, the problem with Cinderella was Cinderella. As for the Seven Dwarves, how could they shack up with that Snow woman? It was a new variation on the old Dickens theme: the good girls weren't a patch on the wicked ones. Cruella De Vil looked like a hybrid of Edith Evans and Indira Gandhi, which is about as petrifying as you can get; The Jungle Book, on the other hand, ended with a child bride carolling daintily about the joys of fetching water. From one film to the next, the rigours of virtue turned the Disney heroine into a clockwork doll: I bend] I simper] I weep buckets] And best of all, I mop it up afterwards]

Now we have Beauty and the Beast, the new full-length musical cartoon from the Disney studios. The setting is an 18th-century French village, but something new is in the air - one wonders how late in the century it is supposed to be. The Beast has flung himself so far beyond society that he is denied the most basic of identification tags - a name. Beauty, on the other hand, is a model of bookish enlightenment called Belle. If that makes her sound like a shire horse or a tugboat, so what: this lady is on the move. She still has Bambi eyes and wears cornflower blue (some things will never change), but the walk has grown more fluid and what-the-hell; she sashays around the village as if she disowned the place. Out in the meadow, she stands at the correct Julie Andrews angle, where we can stare up at her and dream, but complicates the issue by singing an old Emma Bovary line - 'there must be more than this provincial life'.

If anything, she goes one better than Emma, who was taken in by smooth lovers. In this case we have Gaston, a hunk of moral flab disguised as beefcake, who tears himself away from adoring his own physique just long enough to woo Belle. But treating her like a doll merely winds her up, and Gaston is soon rebuffed for his crudity and - surely a Disney first - his lack of erudition, which is like telling Donald Duck to go away and practise his consonants. Belle wants something more, although as yet she doesn't know what. Something lonely, maybe; something tall, with curly horns and a voice like Barry White. Anyway, the chance comes when her father gets trapped in a lonely castle; she seeks him out, and agrees to take his place. A noble move, but watch out for the owner.

Beauty and the Beast swoops along - even children will be taken aback by its rush and vertigo, the onslaught of weird angles and fast cuts. Its young directors, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, inject an old fable with television speed, as if they were embarrassed by pastoral; the movie begins and ends with stained-glass, but everything in between rabbits on like Bugs Bunny. It's a Jiminy Cricket movie, full of smart snappy characters, and needs a Baloo to cool it down. The drama is served neat, which yanks us to attention, and brings the movie in under 90 minutes, but sometimes I just wanted it to take time out, guard its surprise, keep something back for later. Take the first meeting between Belle and the Beast: we've already had a sneak preview of him, and the Disney idea of deep shadow is a thin sepia overlay, so that by the time she tells him to come into the light and show himself properly, we know what to expect. Why not really tuck him away, so that our fright matches hers?

But then the whole task of Disney is to measure out emotions with care. The new film must be scary, especially in its pouncing close-ups of wolves, but never too scary; Beauty must be attracted to the Beast, yet give no hint of the erotic fearfulness on which the legend depends. The animated screen radiates colour, but has no texture - none of that suggestive play between soft skin and matted wildness, clean sunlight and forest fog, worked up by Jean Cocteau in La Belle et la Bete. Given those restrictions, however, the Disney draughtsmen have worked wonders with the Beast - the snubby bat-nose, the mournful eyes, the frame-filling bulk that tapers to trim legs like a Picasso minotaur. Only the teeth are a let-down - I've seen those jutting joke fangs before, on Spike in Tom and Jerry. The Beast barks well, but you don't even bother to think about his bite.

The love that ensues is swift enough to bypass sentimentality, at least until the end; the Disney style, as usual, works best with anthropomorphism, and when it reverts to plain anthropos, the magic turns to goo. By and large, however, Beauty and the Beast is a well- planned dance of comic detail. The castle may be home to bestiality, but it also shows the benefits of enchantment with a cast of living props: chattering clocks, burping boxes, flirtatious mops and candelabras that drip with fear. They sing, they dance, they do a passable Maurice Chevalier and a great Busby Berkeley. They even offer themselves to be sipped from, which I found rather disturbing.

All this is a cunning rehash of Cocteau's tricks - remember the heads that turned and stared as his Beauty walked along the corridor. In a cartoon, of course, that kind of invention seems far more obvious; there is no trace of normality to be transcended. The form holds too many aces for its own good. Such confidence can breed looseness and vulgarity, and the last 20 years in particular have not been good for Disney. Beauty and the Beast is a welcome return to form - even the songs do their bit, although not all filmgoers will be convinced that 'facade' rhymes with 'odd'. I can't quite picture the audience, by the way: infants and parents should have a fine time, but there can't be anything that teenagers find more uncool than Walt Disney. More fool them.

And now, a brief Shakespeare class. Two ways to film his works. 1) Take the text and swear fidelity to it. Repeat the most famous speech at the beginning, just to remind the punters what they're getting. Have an 'idea', of the kind adored by theatre producers - in this case, setting the Forest of Arden in Docklands. Employ young leads to shout their lines, and a famous comedian (Griff Rhys Jones) to mangle his unintelligibly. Dull the lighting, fluff the happy ending, et voila: As You Like It. 2) Chop the lines to shreds. Halve your budget. Find a good villain. Put yourself (plus embarrassing stand-ins) in the leading role. Deepen and enrich the shadows, or film in a Turkish bath. Somehow you will produce the most intense, invigorating, mobile and heart- stabbing Shakespeare film of all time, but only on one condition: you have to be Orson Welles. His Othello is back in a new restored print, and there is simply no excuse not to see it.