Monday, September 26, 2016

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON: restored edition Blu-ray (Universal 1981) Universal Home Video

Thirty-six years ago, director John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981) terrorized audiences with its curious blend of horror and black comedy. Time has yet to diminish the impact of its narrative or grotesque visual storytelling - a testament to the way all truly great horror movies are made. Horror, it should be noted, done correctly, is a psychological byproduct of the mind and not the fallout sustained by having one’s artistic sensibilities or even basic human decencies desecrated with an assault of visually repugnant special effects. The late director, Jacques Tourneur once pointed out that in an era liberated of censorship any artist toiling in the cinema must be wary of pushing the boundaries too far simply because he can. Rob Zombie…are you listening? Tourneur did go on to suggest that so long as the ‘true artist’ had ‘good taste’ – even the most repellent ideas could be made palpable – even titillating, to test the exquisite perversity of the mind without actually berating it into submission. Rob Zombie…are you listening?!?!? Probably not; decidedly not. If ‘31’ is any indication, then Zombie’s taste is all in his feet, or rather, knee-deep in the bloody stool-sampled excrement of someone who ought never have been let near a budget, much less a movie camera to disseminate such gruesome pulp as (choke!) entertainment. Hey, Bobbie, it’s not. Just so we are clear…but I digress.   
There is, to be sure, a very fine line of distinction; one director, John Landis’ comes dangerously near to transgressing on several occasions in An American Werewolf in London, but even more miraculously, never entirely crosses. Landis’ here, I think, is especially adept at combining the sort of moderate ‘gross out’ appeal of his prior adolescent comedies (Kentucky Fried Movie 1977, Animal House 1978, and, The Blues Brothers 1980) perhaps even drawing upon elements from his own all but forgotten B-grade horror foray, Schlock (1973) in which a ‘banana killer’ (an overstuffed ape) is on the prowl for human flesh in a small town. By now, ‘American Werewolf is, or rather, ought to be, renown for Visual Effects master, Rick Baker’s superb ‘transformation’ sequel; still the absolute all-time best lycanthropic mutations illustrated in cinema history; poor David Naughton, via a series of brutally convincing latex applications and various other sundry trick illusions skillfully edited together, transformed into the hump-backed and harry beast set to terrorize unsuspecting Londoners from the posh heights of their affluent neighborhoods to the bowels of the Underground tube.
An American Werewolf in London is the sort of perversely creepy ‘good scare’ that has continued to hold up remarkably well in the intervening decades, primarily owed to Landis’ restraint rather than his verve for show-and-tell; also, the naughtily glib repartee in his screenplay; the conversations between Naughton’s terrorized American exchange student, David Kessler, periodically haunted by the otherwise grotesquely mutilated remains of his best friend, Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) who, despite having half his head and intestines blatantly ripped apart and left dangling as half-encrusted entrails, nevertheless, provides the darkly wicked ‘humor’ of the piece as he casually ‘encourages’ Kessler to do everyone a favor by committing suicide before it is too late.  It is the irony that is so gosh darn appealing here; the idea their boyhood friendship, prematurely turned asunder after a routine walking tour turns brutal and deadly for Jack – David, narrowly escaping with a few wounds and his life…such as it is, or rather, is about to become: a nightmare – can nevertheless endure beyond the surreal boundaries of time and space because both now share in a lineage, centuries older than their own.  An American Werewolf in London does not cheat the viewer of its bone-chilling and cringe-worthy frights. But it does expertly temper and spread them out - and apart - throughout an hour and thirty-eight minutes.
Far too many ‘horror’ movies merely set up their premise thirty-seconds into the plot and then spend the bulk of their run time chasing after every clichéd and reviled way to dismember and disembowel the various cast members. Personally, I have seen enough exploding heads, chopped off limbs and red dye #9 indiscriminately splashed about to last me a lifetime. And the older I get, the less impressed I am by the knee-jerk pseudo ‘cleverness’ of these audio-animatronics, latex puppetries, CGI and the likes to extend such absurd and overtly brutal killings into even more heinously vivid depictions of butchery and bloodshed.  Besides, Landis and American Werewolf have a better – or rather – more tragic narrative to pursue; Kessler, the unwitting, emotionally scarred and thoroughly scared ingénue, steadily coming to terms with the fact his life has been unceremoniously cut short by this freak encounter on the moors. Incurably contaminated, young David now must sacrifice himself or face the perpetuation of the cult of the werewolf, bringing about the same death and destruction to others similarly brutalized by his newfound and uncontrollable impulses.  And, there is love at stake here too; in this case, that of a truly good woman – Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), whom David clearly loves and is loved by in return.
At its core, An American Werewolf in London endures as a masterful and memorable horror classic because it introduces a strain of moral repentance into its fitful fright-fest. David does not aspire to commit such blood-thirsty carnage. That alone is refreshing. Rather he is driven by animal instincts he cannot control or even stave off; the cliché of the heavily tread upon ‘full moon’ encounters, heightened by a very empathetic performance from David Naughton as the ‘put upon’ human sacrifice. Virtually all the cinematic retellings of ‘the wolf man’ have, at least to some extent, relied on the notion that such villainy is imposed rather than a perversely pleasurable ‘release’ perpetuated by a psychotic mind. Unlike most horror villains, the killer here does not wish to kill; rather, he must, is driven, and taken over by certain unearthly impulses to react as a rabid animal would under similar circumstances. Perhaps, it is the concept of not being in complete control of one’s own body or mind that truly terrorizes at the crux of the real ‘reel’ horror in An American Werewolf in London; the steady erosion of David’s sanity as he discovers he cannot resist these bleaker stimuli that have poisoned his system and, in time, will thoroughly come to dominate it.  The tragedy of the piece is made complete when Alex, having only just begun to understand the man she has restored back to health must now be the one to take the life she helped to save, of course, utilizing the ‘silver bullet’ to end the misery, though never the memory of this all too human love, supernaturally denied.   
John Landis came up with the concept for An American Werewolf in London after witnessing a curious burial by gypsies in Yugoslavia in 1970. Reportedly, the gypsies were performing rituals to prevent the deceased’s rising from the dead. Over the next decade, Landis wrote his draft(s) of the screenplay, shelved briefly to direct his debut movie 'Schlock' - a passable first effort. From here, Landis launched into a trilogy of box office successes (Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House and The Blues Brothers); his ever increasing popularity with audiences lending cache and clout to his respectability within the industry and thus affording him carte blanche on subsequent projects. Landis secured the $10 million dollar budget necessary to begin pre-production on An American Werewolf in London. But the monies were hard won. Backers concerns fell into two categories; either the horror was too gruesome for a comedy or the comedic elements threatened to offset and diffuse the horror. Acknowledging the real star of his movie would be the werewolf, Landis commissioned master effects creator, Rick Baker to design a groundbreaking and believable 'transformation'. Remarkably, until An American Werewolf in London, virtually all such ‘transformations’ had been achieved using conventional lap dissolves; the actor undergoing the process of conversion, strapped into an apparatus to keep head movements to a bare minimum while make-up artists gradually applied hair and latex, ‘building up’ the prosthetics, layer upon layer, until the desired effect was achieved. Baker’s transformation would be ‘different’; utilizing hand-crafted latex puppetry, its mutations created in-camera. The sudden growth of body hair (nee, fur), or emergence of fangs from the mouth, as example were shot in reverse; the actual hair and teeth receding through poked holes in molded latex skin. Decades later, Baker's superb SFX continue to hold up under the closest scrutiny – even in hi-def; maintaining their stomach-churning grotesqueness.
Better still, Landis, while possessing the clearest understanding audiences have come to his movie to bear witness to such pivotal ‘hot spots’, never entirely relies on them to sell the rest of his plot; gradually building upon increasingly complex ‘relationships’ between characters, while mining cinematographer, Robert Paynter’s moodily lit craftsmanship to heighten his sense of dread between these thirty-second scares. A ‘dream/nightmare’ sequence, as example, in which a recuperating David imagines returning home to America, only to witness the slaughter of his entire family by a sect of deformed mutants, leads to an extreme close-up: David’s eyes turned hellish green, his visage transformed into a hideous grimace; so ‘in-your-face’ that even when entirely prepared for this moment upon repeat viewing, one still cannot help but lean away from the screen with unease and a modest jolt of repulsion. The sequence is far from gratuitous, despite its perversity; tinged with a bit of sadness, obvious amounts of fear, and just a touch of foreshadowing. This is not going to end well for David Kessler; Landis knows it. The audience knows it. Alas, and perhaps for the very first time, David is suddenly aware of what the future holds; this seemingly ‘toss away’ moment given its payoff much later on when David, now fully aware of his fate, telephones home to bid the family he realizes he can never see again, a cryptic and very bittersweet farewell.  
An American Werewolf in London begins innocuously with our protagonists, David Kessler and Jack Goodman, backpacking American college students having lost their way along the brooding and boggy Yorkshire moors. Landis takes his time setting up the somewhat sophomoric camaraderie between these two old friends. It’s the sort of good-natured buddy/buddy friendship we can relate to; just two guys out on a lark and so cruelly unaware of the destiny in store for them just around the corner. Although neither is as yet aware, they will soon inadvertently find themselves the victims of a werewolf.  The locals at a nearby pub are skeptical of David and Jack’s impromptu arrival; thoroughly unfriendly towards them. Venturing back into the misty night, Jack is instantly mauled to death by the beast. But David survives the attack, thanks to a last minute rescue intervention by the nearby townsfolk. Regrettably, his ordeal is just beginning. Jack returns as 'the undead' - a zombie in an ever-advancing state of physical decomposition, informing David he must kill himself with a silver bullet or face turning into the very creature that attacked them whenever the full moon rises. David is, of course, skeptical. But he cannot rid himself of terrible nightmares depicting the slaughter of his entire family. Psychologist, Dr. J. S. Hirsch (John Woodvine) assures David his visions will subside with the passage of time. He also assigns Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) to stay with David while he recuperates in hospital. Regrettably, Alex develops a crush on her patient. After David is discharged, she invites him to live in her London flat and the two become romantically involved.
Dr. Hirsch decides to pay a visit to the town David and Jack visited on the moors before their terrible ordeal. Even though David insists he was attacked by a wild animal, the story provided to Hirsch by the town's folk suggests David and Jack were the victims of a deranged madman. But this story does not wash at all, particularly after Hirsch discovers a proper police report was never filed and David's wounds were dressed by the town's folk before he was allowed to be taken to hospital. Armed with these facts, Hirsch races back to London. He is too late.  David has turned into a werewolf and set about his bloody rampage; murdering a young couple as they are returning to their fashionable flat. The next morning, David awakens naked in the wolf pavilion at the London Zoo. After some truly hilarious skulking about in the raw, stealing clothes while quietly observed by a young boy with great curiosity, David makes his way back to Alex's apartment. David confides his suspicions to Alex; that something extraordinary and terrifying has occurred. She tries to quell her lover’s anxiety but to little avail. Sometime later, in Alex’s absence, David is reborn as the werewolf yet again, this time pursuing an unsuspecting businessman newly exited the subway and casually strolling down the tight underground passages en route to street level. He will never make it out alive.
Both Landis’ screenplay and David Naughton’s performance provide us with the psychological complexities afflicting the character; Kessler suffering something of a nervous breakdown from extreme survivor’s guilt; yet, powerless to express it as he is being driven by unseen demonic forces to become his harry/hellish alter ego, mercilessly set to brutalize the London citizenry. It cannot go on. And yet, Landis and Naughton provide the audience with a template for Kessler’s internalized scuffles. The werewolf is thus neither purposely evil nor without his soul; a similarly realized Jekyll and Hyde-like struggle for the supposedly ‘inherent goodness’ in man, supplanted by a fitful and un-containable need to destroy one’s self as well as others in the process. At its crux, and particularly during its third act, An American Werewolf in London is almost Shakespearean, gussied up in the blood-thirsty trappings of the ‘traditional’ horror movie. This symbolism begins to crystalize for the audience as David, now thoroughly haunted by the evil he has committed, encounters Jack near an adult cinema in Piccadilly Square. Lured inside the theater, David comes face to face with the walking dead his previous night's carnage has created. Terrified, though unwilling to entirely accept he is responsible for their murders, David is once more transformed into the werewolf. He terrorizes the patrons inside the cinema before breaking free to wreak havoc on Londoners who have gathered outside. Dr. Hirsch and the police trail David to a dead end alley. Having figured out her lover’s fate for herself, Alex now tells David - still in wolf form - she loves him. It can make no difference now, as police rain down a small arsenal, killing the beast, transformed back into his dying human form. The last act of An American Werewolf in London is a romantic tragedy; a sort of ‘beauty and the beast’ fantasy gone horrifically awry. The weight of conflict between David and Alex and roiling terror preparing to burst forth from within elevates the narrative from just your ‘run of the mill’ shock and schlock fest. We feel for David and Alex. We even feel for Jack – a curious, if ever so slightly nauseating empathy, not usually afforded in a horror movie.
Initially forced to cast 90% of his crew from British talent to take advantage of Britain's tax break Edie Plan, this proved a blessing in disguise for Landis. All of the local talent is magnificent, even in bit parts, everyone heightening the believability of this dark and disturbing tale. The genuine camaraderie between Griffin Dunne and David Naughton (the only two Americans in the picture) strikes a chord of lightness, both a welcomed – if brief - respite from the ‘horror’, but also, increasing the bittersweet-ness of fate. Arguably, the one element of An American Werewolf in London that does not hold up under today’s scrutiny is its soundtrack. Landis has flooded his movie with a plethora of ‘then’ contemporary pop tunes. Occasionally, these seem heavy-handedly inserted and thoroughly out of place, their breeziness in direct contrast to the bewildering spectacle simultaneously unfolding and on display. Overall, the soundtrack does not hurt the story’s impact. However, at times it does undermine Landis’ otherwise exemplary crafted level of suspense. In the end, An American Werewolf in London is a good scary movie. But in hindsight it also seems to cap off the second renaissance of horror, briefly explored to exquisite effect throughout the mid-to late 1970’s with such iconic fare as The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Omen (1976), and, Halloween (1978) – to name but a handful of the richly disturbing fear fests on tap.
Universal Home Video's remastered and restored Blu-ray is most welcome. An American Werewolf in London was one of the studio’s very first 1080p offerings back in Blu-ray’s launch and infancy, and, in hindsight, the old hi-def disc showed distinct signs of Universal’s rather spendthrift attitude to simply ‘dump’ deep catalog movies onto the burgeoning marketplace without much care invested in the product itself. Although An American Werewolf in London sported some impressive color saturation, untoward digital tinkering had been rather heavily applied; a lot of the image’s ‘razor-sharpness’ artificially induced; appearing very digitized and wholly unlike what audiences saw in 1981 at their local movie houses. Universal’s ‘restored’ Blu-ray is thus cause for celebration; also, pause to mark how far Blu-ray has come in ten short years – and – how much further still it has to go to catch up to the good ole/bad ole VHS days, when virtually every deep catalog title was made available on home video for consumer consumption.
The studio edict – and not just at Universal – has been to delay a good many catalog releases in favor of simply reissuing already available movies in reincarnated ‘special editions’. Generally, I am not in favor of this practice; the time and monies spent, merely to repackage already available product, at least by my thinking, far better invested getting more ‘deep catalog’ out there. But at least on this outing, we can report Universal has done their utmost to rectify their previous sins and make considerable atonement.  When Blu-ray had its debut I recall so well being disappointed by a lot of what was coming down the pipeline from all of the studios. It just seemed Hollywood was so darn eager to give us anything and everything they could in 1080p, there truly was no concerted effort to first inspect the archival elements or respect the film maker’s original integrity to ensure the utmost quality control was being adhered to across the board. Worse, some studios were merely content to regurgitate the same tired digital files used to mint their DVD’s, bumped to a 1080p output. Not good, and a similar fate since befallen a lot of 4K UHD releases. Will Hollywood ever get the point and/or its collective act together? Hmmm. But again, I digress.
This time around, image quality on An American Werewolf in London is smooth and consistent with eye-popping colors, better contrast, and far more natural flesh tones. It is also free of age-related debris and artifacts. Indeed, the movie looks decades fresher. Gone is the artificial digitized look, replaced with a consistent remastering very film-like in motion and with the indigenous grain accurately reproduced. Fine details pop, only now as cinematographer, Robert Paynter would have preferred; the punctuation on his mood lighting, and also, Rick Baker’s visual SFX. This is a reference quality reissue with virtually nothing to complain about.  As far as I can deduce, the 5.1 DTS audio appears to be identical to the previously issued Blu-ray: not a bad thing. Although predictably dated, with dialogue occasionally sounding tinny, the vintage-ness of the soundtrack is what is important. This just feels right for a movie soundtrack from the early 1980’s.  Extras are utterly impressive; nearly 2 hours of comprehensively assembled ‘making of’ documentaries and featurettes, covering the production from every conceivable angle. There is also an audio commentary from Dunne and Naughton, deleted scenes/outtakes, an interview with John Landis, stills gallery, and, theatrical trailers to sift through. It should be pointed out these extras were previously made available on the ‘Full Moon’ reissue Universal released in 2008. Bottom line: the studio has done its homework on this reissue. Even if you already own the previous edition, this ‘restored’ edition comes very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Saturday, September 24, 2016

LABYRINTH: 30th Anniversary Blu-ray (TriStar Pictures 1986) Sony Home Entertainment

All of the flawless know-how that master puppeteer, Jim Henson could pour into a $25,000,000 budget, a pop-tune inspired soundtrack from the legendary David Bowie, and, some of the most unreservedly unimaginable, and still very impressive, special effects went into the creation of Labyrinth (1986); visually, a richly layered fable a la the Brothers Grimm meets Frank L. Baum and Maurice Sendak. Yet, despite its inventiveness, this compendium of clichés and exoticism failed to jell beyond the pedigree of such impressive visuals. Superficially at least, there was nothing inherently mistaken in pursuing the rather heavily trodden escapist ‘dream’ motif (for which an entire body of science fiction has relied on time immemorial) or our proto-feminist heroine, entering this illusory province of infinite joys and dangers by way of an Alice Through the Looking Glass porthole. Regrettably, there was also not much more to the point of Terry Jones’ screenplay. For once having crossed to the other side of its highly stylized insanity, the Labyrinth seriously lacked the impetus of a forward-thinking narrative structure; the singular quest in the journey leading to more mayhem and misadventures with misanthropes than a search for self-discovery; usually the purpose of such soulful enterprises. We should pause a moment to tip our hats to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale admitting to the Good Witch of the North that if she ever feels the urge to go in search of her own heart’s desire again, she will never look further than her own backyard – “…because if it isn’t there, then I never really lost it in the first place.”  No movie before or since has done as much for our ageless suspension of childhood disbelief while proving the affirmation of these daydreams that, far from dissipating, seem only to ripen more sincerely with the passage of time.  
At least in theory, Labyrinth has all glitter, panache and makings of an epic children’s movie classic like Oz. Yet, it foundered at the box office – barely clawing back half its initial investment. But this rather makes sense to me now. I can recall seeing the movie in ’86. Even at the ‘mature’ age of 15 (the same age as our heroine) I found Labyrinth more disturbing than enchanted. Fair enough, the literary world of the Brothers Grimm is peppered in the edgily dark and demonic. Yet, in the case of Labyrinth, here was a tale about a bitter ingénue, Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) who, with tearful spite and venom toward her stepmother, and, ‘big sister’ cruelty re-channeled to a helpless and blubbering baby, wishes the innocent banished to an eternal and forgotten lair of fantasy she knows absolutely nothing about. Then, with her miscarriage of imagination devilishly fulfilled by Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie) – a gangly, punk-haired, Dracula-caped, shape-shifting tease, spewing platitudes and glitter in tandem – Sarah pursues a rescue intervention from his brooding netherworld; a place where virtually all friendships are fickle and fleeting, and all ‘creatures’ encountered along the way are deformed non-human entities. Meanwhile, the Goblin King holds other people’s seemingly unwanted children captive in a sort of ageless vacuum for his own amusement.  
Some thirty years later, I still see no reason to revise my initial assessment of Labyrinth as a thoroughly ambitious, but equally as flawed masterpiece. Despite its cult status, and a rather intriguing performance by Bowie, tailor-made to his life-long adoration for gender-bending make-up and costuming, Labyrinth is grotesquely undernourished and wafer-thin on plot and purpose. Again, I defer to MGM’s mammoth Wizard of Oz. Unlike Oz’s Dorothy, entering a fascistic alter-reality, impacting positive change via three enduring friendships and, in the process, liberating the denizens of its demesne under a tyrannical witch, but also the false-prophesized micromanagement of a ‘humbug’; Sarah in Labyrinth is never motivated by any such altruism. She is merely desperate to undue the impromptu madness she herself has caused before dad (Christopher Malcolm) and step-mama (Shelley Thompson) can unearth her wicked wretchedness.  If Oz is a place where good girls go in search of their better selves, than the Goblin King’s labyrinth is a purgatory lurking with temptations for tarts who moronically believe they can do better without any help at all. Jareth’s domain is not a magical fairyland ‘somewhere over the rainbow’, but an arid and generally unkempt principality, overgrown in vines and weeds, a dystopian paradise gone hopelessly to seed with periodically cobble-stoned Tyrolian townships and moss-laden, swampy ‘stinky’ marshes where only the fittest – or at least, the most enterprising – can survive. Worse, at least for the picture’s success, is the queerly unsettling, if briefly mutual, sexual attraction between the child, Sarah and worldly Jareth; Bowie’s otherworldly presence a potent potion for this burgeoning young lass who lacks his level of experience, though otherwise possesses the chutzpah to play his game on his terms by exploiting her own ‘come hither’ eligibility as an intoxicating counterpoint of interest.
The project was begun in earnest after an impromptu conversation between Jim Henson and Brian Froud; the pair having worked together on Henson’s other pet project, The Dark Crystal (1982). Froud, who would ultimately serve as Labyrinth’s ‘conceptual designer’, pitched some of his ideas to Henson with a passion for the age-ole folklore of goblins as its centerpiece. While Henson liked the idea, he also encouraged Froud to seek out the humor rather than the pathos of the piece. Henson was also more determined his puppets should have ‘character’ this time around.  Yet, almost from the beginning, the concept for Labyrinth became muddled. An early novella, commissioned by Henson from author, Dennis Lee seemed to shed some light. Indeed, Henson admired the lyrical quality of the piece, passing it along to screenwriter, Terry Jones.  However, Jones disliked practically everything about Lee’s book so much, he elected instead to begin afresh, cribbing from Froud’s concept art for his only inspiration.  Although Jones would receive sole writing credit on Labyrinth, the shooting script would continue to morph and was to be heavily rewritten by George Lucas, Laura Philips and Elaine May, with Henson putting in some of his own finishing touches. What ultimately emerged from all this tinkering was a movie Jones would all but disavow.
Part of the problem lay in Jim Henson’s decision to cast David Bowie as the irrefutable ‘star presence’; a move resulting in the part of Jareth being greatly revised and expanded. Initially, Jareth was just another puppet creature in Henson’s arsenal of convincing oddities. Eventually, the character outgrew this primitive concept; Henson leaning more toward the idea of hiring a pop star to play the part. While the likes of Sting, Prince, Mick Jagger, and Michael Jackson were all briefly considered, Henson eventually hit on the inspired notion of casting Bowie in the lead. One cannot underestimate Bowie’s distinctiveness; his unique and angular physicality married to one of the most iconic and trend-setting careers of any musician in his vintage. Bowie had studied acting, arguably his first true love, before embarking upon a career in music. Yet, only more recently had he chosen to split his time between live concert performances, writing, producing and recording albums; also, to include a breakneck schedule of thoroughly impressive theatrical and movie appearances; 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1979’s Just a Gigolo, and 1983’s The Hunger among them.  
And indeed, in revisiting Labyrinth some thirty years on, regrettably after Bowie’s untimely passing, his performance remains the one thing about the picture ostensibly that has not aged. Bowie brings a certain aristocratic je ne sais quoi and flamboyance to the part; also, a distinctly asexual glamour that is as innocuous as it remains succinctly subtle in the art of scintillation. “I'd always wanted to be involved in the music-writing aspect of a movie that would appeal to children of all ages, as well as everyone else,” Bowie would later confide in an interview, “…and I must say that Jim gave me a completely free hand with it. The script itself was terribly amusing without being vicious or spiteful or bloody, and it had a lot more heart in it than many other special effects movies. So I was pretty hooked from the beginning.” Yet, to some extent, Bowie’s participation also offsets and/or unhinges the strength of our heroine’s soulful search for self-discovery.
In Terry Jones’ original screenplay, Jareth is an enigma of Sarah’s mind; elusive, yet hypnotically compelling; the labyrinth, not revealed until Sarah’s discovery of it in the third act. It thus, and simultaneously, remains a mystery to the audience. In the finished picture, however, the labyrinth is represented several times throughout the story; Bowie leaping about its Roman forum-esque construction in a rather transparent music video-ish performance that could have just as easily been excised from TV’s The Muppet Show (1976-81). Between 1983 and 1985, Jones’ screenplay would undergo many mutations and no less than twenty-five heavily revised drafts. Bowie was not particularly impressed with the script, believing it lacked humor and pathos. At one point, he even contemplated withdrawing from the project, his fears allayed by Henson’s repeated promises that ‘improvements’ were being made to accommodate his interests.  It is perhaps noteworthy to recall in these early drafts, the protagonist of our story shifted from an Arthurian liege to as equally as bygone a princess, and finally, to a little girl from Victorian England. To keep budgetary concerns to a minimal, the bookends of Labyrinth were eventually updated to then contemporary America, making Sarah’s atypical fascination with spotty widgets, spirits, goblins and the like all the more curious out of context.
Labyrinth began its arduous five month shoot on April 15, 1985 at Elstree Studios in London; a relatively brief schedule for principle photography preceded by almost a year and a half of pre-production to create convincing creature designs. Employing virtually every major sound stage the studio had to offer, Production Designer Elliot Scott and Art Directors, Terry Ackland-Snow, Roger Cain, Peter Howitt, Frank Walsh and Michael White handcrafted a fantastic assortment of indoor sets, requiring the expert execution of forced perspective and enveloping dioramas – arguably, the largest ever built – to mimic this vast and seemingly endless landscape. To anchor the tale in its ‘American setting’, the production crew also took advantage of staging the movie’s bookends in Upper Nyack, Piermont and Haverstraw, NY. There is, to be sure, a certain level of verisimilitude to these opening shots depicting Sarah, soiled in her ‘princess white’ robes as she races home from her afternoon of make-believe during an impromptu thundershower, that the rest of the studio-bound work never entirely assuages; despite the inclusion of 120 truckloads of tree branches, 1,200 turfs of grass, and 850 lbs. of dry leaves scattered throughout these stylized sets to suggest some pseudo-authenticity beyond their artifice. But the uncanny illusion of life, oft’ honed by a small army of puppeteers toiling behind the scenes, would be most complexly realized in Hoggle – the elfin, pock-skin ‘garden gnome’ who serves as Sarah’s reluctant guide through the zigzagging abyss.  Ultimately, character actress Shari Weiser was suited into the costume, providing the spritely pantomime of body movements while four radio-controlled puppeteers plied their craft to will a separate ‘performance’ from the elf’s audio-animatronic head. Despite its transatlantic exodus from Hollywood, most of Labyrinth’s creatives were culled from talent loyal to Henson’s state’s side production company, including a good many ‘Fraggle Rock’ alumni; Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Karen Prell, Ron Mueck and Rob Mills among them.
After a main title sequence set to Bowie’s ‘Underground’, and featuring an animated barn owl swooping in and out of the credits, Labyrinth opens with Sarah Williams rehearsing for a part in a play in a park-like setting with her loveable mutt, Merlin. A light spring rain stirs Sarah from this fantasy role-playing to recall she is supposed to be at home preparing to babysit her infant brother, Toby (Toby Froud) while their father, Robert and Sarah’s stepmother, Irene go out to dinner. Coming into direct conflict with Irene on the front steps; then, acting belligerent toward Robert, Sarah next sets about tormenting her already tear-stained brother with angry diatribes that do little to comfort his tears. Aside: as a fifteen year old boy in 1986 I could not imagine a more hellish nightmare than to have been left in Sarah’s care. What a spoilt and viperous brat!  Ah, but Sarah is in for a good ‘head shake’ as it were; her rash request to have the fictional Goblin King from her play swoop down and remove Toby from her care, suddenly granted. The execution of this abduction is, in tandem, one of the most exhilarating and terrifying moments in the picture; the expansive bedroom set filled with shafts of bluish lightening from the storm outside and the infrequent grizzly giggles of goblins hiding everywhere in plain sight, awaiting the satisfaction of their master – Jareth.
What occurs next is rather inexcusably befuddling. Jareth appears in the form of a barn owl, miraculously transformed into David Bowie. He offers Sarah a gift in exchange for Toby; a clear-glass orb juggled between his fingertips, suddenly transformed into a hideous snake. Urging Sarah to forget about Toby, the girl instead takes up Jareth’s challenge to pursue him into the labyrinth. Given Jareth’s initial abject discouragement, it is more than a little confusing he should then grant Sarah a brief pardon into his private kingdom – thirteen hours to ‘solve’ the riddle of the labyrinth, before commenting “what a waste, Sarah” and vanishing into thin air, leaving the girl to fend for herself in this strange land. Entering the maze by way of a magic doorknocker, Sarah has difficulty discerning turns and corners. Yet most of what she visually perceives is an optical illusion. Hoggle appears, but is of little help at first. After all, why bother. Unraveling the mystery of the labyrinth is impossible. But Sarah gets advice from a cockney worm; actually, a bit more misdirection than she bargained for, plummeting down a bizarre mineshaft comprised of ‘helping hands’ and reunited with Hoggle in a dark oubliette. While Hoggle is ever-pessimistic about their future, Sarah encourages him to reconsider the labyrinth as little more than a semi-complex puzzle to be solved. In response to her dismissal of his game, Jareth suddenly reappears. He ups the ante by advancing the clock several hours ahead, thus providing Sarah with less time to search for Toby. Jareth then threatens Sarah and her newfound companion with a strange metallic excavating device burrowing down the tight mine shaft, hurtling towards them and sure to crush and annihilate.  
At the last possible moment, Sarah and Hoggle discover a secret passage and a wooden ladder leading back up to the surface. More encounters with strange and unearthly creatures from this netherworld follow; a sage with the upper half of a talking ostrich as his headdress, demands remuneration from Sarah (she gives up her ring) but then absolutely refuses to tell her anything in return. Pursued by warring pygmies, Sarah and Hoggle become estranged; Sarah stumbling across a gigantic beast, tied and dangling upside down from a tree. The beast, Ludo, briefly functions in the role of Sarah’s protector. However, he too gets lost in the Bog of Eternal Stench; Jareth reappearing to Hoggle, ordering him to give Sarah a freshly ripened peach (think the tainted apple from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1938). In the meantime, Sarah is accosted by ‘the Firies’ – the least convincing of Jim Henson’s creatures, shot in full figure against a blue screen and unconvincingly matted into the live action. The Firies perform another of Bowie’s songs, ‘Chilly Down’ before trying to separate Sarah’s head from her body. Mercifully, Hoggle comes to Sarah’s aid; a betrayal that causes Jareth to exile both of them to the Bog of Eternal Stench where Sarah is reunited with Ludo. From here, the encounters grow more frequently episodic. The primary criticism I have against Labyrinth is it completely fails to engage the viewer with anything better than these brief encounters, meant primarily to show off the technical prowess of Jim Henson’s puppet cavalcade. It’s all show rather than an experience.
Sarah, Hoggle, and Ludo are denied access to a narrow bridge by Sir Didymus, an anthropomorphic Fox Terrier and his English Sheepdog, Ambrosius. Yet, like virtually all the other obstacles Sarah has encountered, and will continue to, this one too is a red herring in misdirection, merely meant to cleverly delay the journey without actually causing us to fear its failure altogether. All Sarah has to do is ask Didymus’ permission to pass. This granted, she now falls prey to Hoggle’s ‘gift’ – Jareth’s juicy peach, causing a hallucinogenic nightmare to further detour Sarah’s odyssey. Instead, she imagines herself in a trance-like state during a lavishly appointed masked ball; Jareth steadily approaching to proclaim his love. The courtiers are as a gathering of wax mannequins escaped from Madame Tussauds; the illusion shattered when the memories Jareth is attempting to suppress with this elaborate ‘dream’ come barreling back into Sarah’s subconscious. She collapses, and is plunged into yet another illusion, that of having arrived to the relative safety of her own bedroom. It is, of course, even more misdirection; Sarah realizing the room is cobbled together from spare parts and relocated in a vast junkyard on the outskirts of the labyrinth.  Ludo and Didymus come to her rescue and together they make their way to Goblin City. Now, Hoggle sheepishly – and rather bravely – helps everyone get past the tower gate. Despite his feeling unworthy, Sarah and the others forgive and welcome Hoggle back into their fold. Determined to prevent Sarah her entry into his castle, Jareth sends the goblin army to attack. But these diminutive warriors are no match for Ludo’s strength, as he hurls mountain rocks and other debris to clear a direct path to the castle. Sarah enters a room modeled on the famed Escher Staircase; its forced perspective, resulting in a discombobulating sequence, seemingly unbound by the laws of gravity.
In one of Labyrinth’s creepiest and utterly icky moments, Jareth makes one final attempt to prevent Sarah from fulfilling her journey’s end. He promises her his eternal love if she will only ‘submit’ to him and thus surrender Toby into his care. Recalling for the first time the circumstances she is presently living through, mirror the events as depicted in the play she was rehearsing for at the start of the movie, Sarah begins to recite the lines she has learned, stumbling over a pivotal bit of dialogue; the only words that prevent her from returning home safely. As Jareth dangles the glass orb before Sarah, pleading for her reconsideration, she draws from memory the play’s definitive moment of liberation – “…and you have no power over me.”  The spell is broken and Jareth dissolves into a heap of rags blowing restlessly in the wind. Sarah discovers herself back in the foyer of her family home; the barn owl flying out the open front door as she races upstairs to discover Toby peacefully asleep in his crib. As with most everything that has occurred thus far, Labyrinth’s finale is nonsensical. Sarah returns to her bedroom, slightly wiser and more ‘grown up’, but as saddened it all now appears to have come to an abrupt end. However, just as unexpectedly, Hoggle, Ludo, Didymus and Ambrosius, together with an eclectic assortment of creatures encountered along the way, suddenly reappear to surround her in jubilation. Perhaps, Sarah reasons, there is just a little more time to be squeezed out of ‘childhood’ before the inevitableness of time marching on creeps in for good. As the revelers rejoice, Jareth, in owl form, quietly observes from beyond the window before flying off into the night.
Despite its uber-sophisticated blend of puppetry and other sundry visual effects, Labyrinth is a convoluted fable at best. When stripped of all its ‘creature comforts’ it is not an altogether prepossessing one either. It desperately wants to be hailed as a revisionist’s mythology, and, moreover, a new ‘children’s movie classic’ on par with The Wizard of Oz.  However, the cinematic Oz is a fairytale of the highest order, primarily because it is imbued with those intangibly light touches of faith in the future. And it has a heroine who never wanes in her positivism or goal. By contrast, Labyrinth’s Sarah is repeatedly delayed and frequently allows herself this luxury to wallow, either in self-pity or simply in the latest hallucination du moment.  She is neither as clever nor as driven in her pursuit, primarily because outside of finding the brother she has exiled to this otherworldly maelstrom, she cannot see the ‘proverbial forest for its trees’; that a return to mid-town America does not necessarily equate to a restoration of life as she once knew it, or even better – an appreciation for – the humdrum of it she so easily dismissed at the start.
Alas, Labyrinth equally suffers from the elephantiasis of its top-heavy visual design that, while breathtaking, does not, in and of itself, generate the intimate or engaging backdrop onto which all its allegorical and semi-nonsensically staged action can thrive. While Oz’s trajectory moves in a linear forward direction, the purpose of Sarah’s journey in Labyrinth’s is neither clearly stated nor ever resolved completely at the end. In hindsight, the most impressive aspect of the movie is its SFX, virtually all but a handful achieved full-scale and in-camera. The movie’s other great salvation is David Bowie’s performance, imbued with stirrings in tandem of empathy, plodding vindictiveness, and, in a few scenes, an almost pedophiliac ‘romantic’ desire to possess Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah; herself, transformed from wicked to winsome before the end; a real woman with a ‘reel’ woman’s heart.  Does any of this work? Partly. Should any of it make sense? Hmmm. At some point, even the most fantastical of all mind-bending movie trips has to meet the most basic criteria: to tell its story succinctly, competently, and purposefully without pretending to be anything more than an entertainment; a way to conveniently fill up our leisure with a good yarn and a dash of thought-provoking magic not to be unearthed in the natural world. Labyrinth fails in this purpose, mainly because Jim Henson is more invested in the vignettes, the technicalities, and the precision of bringing ‘life’ to the inanimate among the cast.  As ever, this was, is and remains Henson’s great gift to the world. It does not, however, equate to movie magic of the highest order – at least, not in Labyrinth’s case.   
The 30th Anniversary of Labyrinth has received a stunning new 4K restoration utilizing the original camera negative. The results speak for themselves: a substantial upsurge in color fidelity and density, fine detail, and, accurately produced grain structure, perfectly capable of capturing the distinctive and subtler textures employed in these stunning visuals. Prepare to be dazzled because Labyrinth on Blu-ray has never looked better.  Labyrinth’s carefully composed shots and exquisitely detailed old-school film-making techniques put virtually all of today’s digital photography to shame; Alex Thomson’s artistry remains a many-splendored thing; the likes of which ‘reel’ cinema magic is oft made.  Detail is the most markedly improved. I found myself noticing things like the print of the wallpaper in Sarah’s bedroom, or some of the surreal textures in the puppet’s latex skin and artificial hair. No, it did not take me ‘out of the story’ – such as it is. If anything, a new appreciation steadily evolved for the ultra-high level of craftsmanship pursued and perfected on this project. Detail even emerges from the shadows; blacks velvety rich, though never crushing and skin tones looking more genuine than ever.  There is absolutely nothing to complain about here. Labyrinth is a reference quality disc sure to delight its myriad of fans.
Labyrinth also gets a new Dolby Atmos 7.1 track.  As with the image, Sony has taken the utmost care to deliver the goods with a truly immersive sonic experience; low, sustained rumbles during the thunderstorm, creature groans and moans sounding true to life rather than manufactured Foley and wow, dialogue so crisply rendered you will swear the cast is doing a live reading in front of your screen. The clarity of the music is also lushly spread around with careful distinction and an infinitely more robust bass than was available on the old Blu-ray release. The vocals are front and center as they should be. But there is atmospheric support creeping in on all sides. Anyone questioning the validity of converting older audio recordings to Dolby Atmos need only take a careful listen how good they can sound when all the care, bells and whistles have been applied with due diligence.
Lastly, Sony has pulled out all the stops for the most comprehensive assortment of extras, beginning with ‘The Henson Legacy’ – featuring Jennifer Connelly and members of the Henson family, plus a rare trip to the Center for Puppetry Arts that includes over 100 puppets from Labyrinth. Mythbuster’s Adam Savage hosts a Q&A with behind-the-scenes craftsmen, Brian Henson, David Goelz, Karen Prell and Sheri Weiser. In what must be considered the most poignant of the featurettes, Jennifer Connelly pays a glowing tribute to David Bowie in The Goblin King, along with Jim Henson’s children, Brian and Cheryl: bring Kleenex. Best of all, unlike Disney’s recent misfire with Beauty and The Beast, Sony has no compunction about including ALL of the previously afforded extras on their reissue of Labyrinth, including the old Picture-in-Picture commentary, another by Brian Froud, the original – and frankly, very comprehensive ‘making of’ documentary, plus two additional documentaries, exploring the movies vast assortment of characters, and a behind-the-scenes look at ‘Goblin City’; finally, the original theatrical trailer. It bears repeating that when it comes to Blu-ray, Sony remains ahead of the pack. Grover Crisp and his magicians are owed the utmost respect for bringing yet another vintage catalog release to the forefront with superior mastering and restoration techniques that have yielded bar none the most impressive Blu-ray of this newly inaugurated fall season. For those who have afforded Labyrinth its cult status over these many years, this new 30th anniversary will make a very fine Christmas stocking stuffer. Permit us to worship and give thanks.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: Walt Disney Signature Edition Blu-ray (Walt Disney Home Video)

It is, I think, no overstatement to afford Walt Disney the considerable ‘screen credit’; that the classical European fairy tale today survives, is best remembered, and most fondly thrives as a renewable source of inspiration to millions the world over, primarily because of Walt’s clairvoyant ability to re-imagine what had been, at least in his own time, short stories of the fantastic, tinged in truths presented as parables about the human condition. In whatever form, the fairy tale illustrates our hearts’ desires; to experience something miraculous in the everyday; to be endowed with an intangible, heightened sense of realism and magically teleported into unimaginable circumstances where we are meant to ‘star’ as the hero/heroine of the piece, but also feel a sincere contribution made along the journey. The fairy tale is therefore, at once, strangely a life lesson grounded in a basic understanding of humanity, and, a whimsical journey into this wondrous and highly experimental form of self-discovery. And while it is nevertheless certain the fairy tales of yore continue, and will likely endure to satisfy each new generation as yet to rediscover them, as sure as the sun rises in the east, the genre’s modern renaissance owes virtually everything to Walt Disney.   
Walt’s inspiration derived from his honeymoon trip to Europe, amassing a small library of collected works by the vintage fairytale authors of their age. Throughout the next four decades, Walt would create an empire based on these time-honored masterworks. But one cannot dismiss Walt’s contribution to the fairytale. His versions are not mere translation. Indeed, perusing the pages of any of the renown classic fairytales today is likely to leave the novice reader, weaned on the oft discounted ‘Disney-fied’ versions, wanting for something more: character development – for starters; to say nothing of the immeasurable art of animation and the scores of vocalists, musicians, lyricists and song writers who have, each by their own unique craftsmanship, augmented and texturized the classic fairytale into an art form the likes of which no ancient authorship could have imagined; certainly, none so definitively visualized and disseminated en masse as with the advent of the motion pictures. Further still, it takes a visionary to see the proverbial ‘forest for the trees’; to massage and morph one media into another, and, a mogul of Walt’s formidable caliber to tickle the various talents ultimately responsible for seeing his overriding arc and vision through to the screen. While Walt was always fond of saying “…we should never lose sight all this was started by a mouse…” I think it is as vital today to recall none of what follows would even have been fathomable without Walt Disney.
To suggest the studio’s animated version of French author, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s classic fairytale Beauty and the Beast (1991) resurrected Disney animation from its self-imposed mediocrity is perhaps a bit much. Truth told; the studio had already taken valiant steps to re-establish its prominence with The Little Mermaid (1989). Yet, in retrospect, the technique exhibited on ‘Mermaid’, while arguably tinged with the elusive spark of genius, equally lacks refinement, something of the effortless artistry exemplified in the very best of Walt’s illustrious back catalog. Of all the movies made after Walt’s death, ‘Mermaid’ bears the most striking resemblance to having been expressly created with the serialized Saturday morning, cost-cutting, kiddie cartoon in mind. Permit us to be both frank and fair when suggesting by the time Beauty and the Beast had its world premiere on Nov. 22, 1991, the industry perception was the studio’s greatest achievements (Fantasia, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, et al.) were a part of its past. Twenty-five years on, this now appears to be the case with Disney Inc.’s second animation renaissance that began ‘under the sea’ and ostensibly ended in a belfry at the Notre Dame.
In the intervening decades, the custodians of Walt’s legacy have shown great resilience for morphing live-action into cartoons and vice versa; even able to concoct viable film franchises out of Disneyland theme park attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, The Original Country Bear Jamboree and Tomorrowland. (Aside: I am still waiting for It’s A Small World – the musical to hit theaters…note, the sarcasm). But seriously, I for one miss the ole magic typified by Walt’s tutelage, and, to a lesser extent, its clever reconstitution forged under Michael Eisner; who in 1984, assumed leadership of a company virtually on the edge of extinction. It is not overstating things to submit that when Eisner became CEO of Walt Disney Enterprises, together with company president, Frank G. Wells, the fantasyland of Walt’s youth had suffered a series of near-devastating artistic hiccups and was in grave danger of being shuttered for good. The outside world may not have realized the precariousness of the situation; and not only for The Walt Disney Co.; after Walt, at least maintaining the façade and Teflon-coating of an untouchable force of nature – surviving the deluge that effectively splintered Hollywood’s autonomy and, by the late 1970’s, had made a scorched earth of all its once vital dream factories, now at the mercy of devastating corporate takeovers and selloffs. Alas, Disney Inc. was not immune to these prevailing winds of change. Audiences shied away from ‘wholesome’ family entertainment and the few awkward attempts made under the Disney banner to expand its repertoire into more ‘adult-themed’ fare (The Black Hole, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Black Cauldron, etc. et al) had miserably imploded at the box office.
Immediately following Walt's death, Disney Inc. valiantly put on a brave face and trudged onward, though only occasionally with financial success. For the most part, 'post Disney' product lacked Walt's personal investment and inimitably ginger-light touch of guidance to generate the necessary sparks of inspiration. Worse, the studio was facing the inevitable exodus of its original staff; the so-called '9 old men' who had given virtually every Disney classic until The Sword and the Stone (1963) their peerless imprint of fineness. We should also point out that 1959’s Sleeping Beauty marked the ‘unofficial’ end to Disney’s ‘classic animation’ style. With the introduction of Xerox technology on One-Hundred-And-One Dalmatians (1961), capable of reproducing the animator’s original hand drawings without the intermediary step of having to be hand-traced and cleaned up by another skilled artist in the ‘ink and paint’ department, the finesse and meticulous attention to every last detail ‘literally’ had gone to the dogs, along with the awe-inspiring discipline and fluidity achieved in hand-colored line drawings. The feature films that followed all share in this homogenized look, adopting a more crude ‘aesthetic’ owing far more to the then contemporary strain trademarked at UPA Studios than the uber-sophisticated and luxuriating appeal of every Disney cartoon feature made since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938). 
Fast track to 1986, a year in retreat; as newly appointed studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg made the fortuitous decision to ‘relocate’ the animation department to a series of ‘off the lot’ construction trailers. Ever since Walt made the move from the old Hyperion to the Burbank Studios in 1939, the Animation Department had been ensconced in a campus-like setting on 51 acres of prime real estate. Indeed, in Walt’s time, the animator remained king, or at least, treated as such, afforded comfortable offices and plenty of green space in which to let his creative juices and imagination run wild. In hindsight, time has proven Katzenberg as no Disney. And yet, his nullification of the animator as anything more or better than ‘mere employee’ collecting a paycheck but to which the company now seemingly owed nothing – a move that just as easily might have led to absolute devastation of its creative core, if not the total dissolution of the company – mercifully, instead portended to nothing less than a rebirth of the organization’s bread and butter.  Arguably, no one was more surprised by this turn of events than Katzenberg – whose glorified bean-counting made sense of the picture business solely from the perspective of producing ‘winners – and ‘live action’ ones at that, generated from pre-sold and all but ironclad ‘safe’/marketable properties.
While The Little Mermaid will always remain the picture that impressed Katzenberg enough to green light future projects, marginally altering his preconceived notions about the validity of maintaining an animation department (though he never fully understood it), ‘Mermaid’ equally penetrated through a decade long/company-wide spiral into oblivion, resurrecting Disney Inc.’s image as the purveyors of sweetness and light, while introducing a whole new generation to its heavily branded hallmarks in ‘family entertainment’. But with the advent of new and improved technologies, Beauty and the Beast is, at once, both a sincere attempt to turn back the clock to 1959, yet, also, advance the art of animation even further into the next millennium with its striking use of computer-generated schematics, seamlessly blended into the tradition of hand-drawn cell animation, meant herein to add yet another uncanny layer of verisimilitude to the visual experience. It works, primarily because co-directors, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise know precisely how best to utilize ‘the new’ without solely relying on it to serve their point and purpose. The ballroom sequence, as example; set to the movie’s title track is among the greatest achievements in any Disney movie, a magical swirling spectacle, sweetly sung by the tea kettle, Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury) while our protagonists whirl about; the camera seemingly freed to swoop and rise from the intricate parquet floors to an exquisitely vaulted-ceiling, complete with candle-flickering crystal chandelier and frescos depicting winged cherubs, responding to the unlikeliest of grand amours below, between a lowly country girl and the hideously disfigured creature, presumably from the netherworld.
In and of itself, there was nothing ‘new’ about this technology; it having been ‘tested’ during the climactic ‘Big Ben’ sequence from The Great Mouse Detective (1986); an otherwise rather tepid and uninspiring reworking of the Sherlock Holmes formula.  But its implementation in Beauty and the Beast makes all the difference to two pivotal sequences in the picture; the aforementioned ballroom ‘money shot’ and the exuberant ‘Be Our Guest’; a sort of ‘supper club’ floorshow put on by Lumiere (voiced by Jerry Orbach); a Maurice Chevalier-inspired boulevardier, reconstituted herein as a candelabra, Mrs. Potts, and, the reluctant participation of the infinitely more officious Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers) – a mantel clock. Interesting, it should have taken Disney almost fifty years to turn Beauty and the Beast into an animated feature.  Indeed, the project had always been in Walt’s afterthoughts, almost from the moment his consignment of European fairytale books arrived state’s side. But for one reason or another, it never materialized, despite illustrator, Kay Nielsen verve for the project. Arguably, the war years had interrupted – even stifled - Walt’s most ambitious and fertile creative period. After the war, Walt became inveigled in several passions that steadily eroded his commitments to feature animation; entrusting most of his fifties output to a select group of his most competent staff; overseeing the work on a semi-casual basis, yet infrequently stepping aside to pour more effort into his foray into television and, of course, the creation of Disneyland.
Beauty and the Beast is practically perfect as the ‘official’ inaugural, or perhaps, reintroduction of feature animation at the studio.  Alas, it would prove as bittersweet an occasion as an overwhelming success for all concerned; in hindsight, the only Disney feature to date to be nominated in the Best Picture category at the Oscars; a year that bestowed the coveted award on Johnathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, but also featured some heady competition from Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides and Oliver Stone’s J.F.K.  What was generally unknown at the time of pre-production, was Howard Ashman (the brilliant playwright and lyricist who, along with his equally as talented songwriter/composer, Alan Menken – the duo having immeasurably contributed to the return of musicals as viable mainstream entertainment with their score for The Little Mermaid) was gravely ill with AIDS. While Menken would remain productive throughout the gestation of Beauty and the Beast, even contributing several songs, eventually to wind up in the studio’s upcoming Aladdin (1992), he would not live to see the fruits of either of these labors. In gratitude, Beauty and the Beast features a heartfelt dedication in memoriam: “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman 1950–1991.”
I cannot believe it has been 25 years since Beauty and the Beast first premiered. Where has the time gone? I can, in fact, clearly recall the theater and the actual seat I occupied in it for the opening night premiere, crowding into the full-to-capacity auditorium with four cousins and two tubs of popcorn between us to partake of what was almost instantly a crowd-pleaser, grabbing hold of my imagination as a truly memorable night at the movies. I have had far too few of these watershed moments in the intervening decades since and virtually none devoted exclusively to the art and craft of hand-drawn animation in the last ten years – not even from Disney. But what audience and critics alike were to happily rediscover with Beauty and The Beast in 1991 was a burgeoning epoch, paying homage to the past while never slavishly devoted to its artistic integrity. For a decade thereafter, The Walt Disney Company seemed on the verge of another full blossom. And while Disney Inc. has since reinvented itself yet again, this time with a live-action resurrection of its time-honored animated classics, at least a part of the ‘intangible magic’ that was ‘hand-drawn/hand-painted’ cell animation, is gone – or perhaps, merely retired for the time being. At least, that is my sincerest hope.
In altering the ending of Leprince de Beaumont’s fable (in the original, the beast dies after knowing true love), directors, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise reintroduced children of all ages to Disney alchemy of the highest order. Purists continue to poo-poo the studio’s meddling with traditional fables. To this we heartily confess: nothing bad ever happens in a Disney fable – unlike a good many of the masterworks from which their inspiration hails. But at least this time around, Trousdale and Wise give us every indication something just might; the penultimate castle rooftop battle to the finish between the wounded beast (voiced by Robby Benson) and the boorish and musclebound village stud, Gaston (Richard White) giving pause as one of the most violently staged assaults and near-death experiences yet to be realized in a Disney animated feature. For sheer exhilaration I would sincerely place this moment on par with the penultimate dragon fight at the end of Walt’s own Sleeping Beauty; the picture that has remained at the forefront my personal favorite ever since I first saw it at the impressionable age of ten.
But Beauty and the Beast is, I think, a picture that goes well beyond the creative aegis and parts gone into its incubation; the Howard Ashman Alan Menken score, full of robust Broadway-esque tunes and routines, capped off by a poignant title track/ballad; the compendium of voice talents, many already mentioned, who brought it all to life, including Paige O’Hara, a rising star of the theater, having won the audition to ‘star’ as Belle; the formidable return to what producer, Don Hahn once referred to as “a ‘Doctor Zhivago’ kind of snow” - inspired majesty, translated to a heightened visual grandeur rarely seen in animation then and all but absent from it since. It is far too easy to merely cherry-pick out the ‘best’ or perhaps, mere ‘favorite’ parts of the show as overly simplified citations pointing to its greatness in totem as an artistic achievement. But to do so is to undermine the inspired kinetic sparks of energy coursing throughout the exercise, or perhaps, more aptly – and ingeniously – laid out as the sustaining arteries between the audience and the art of animation. Beauty and the Beast easily became one of the brightest and biggest money makers in the company’s history. More importantly, at least for posterity, it has remained a timeless part of the Disney canon of movies ever since; moodily magnificent in its storytelling, and quite simply one of its finest efforts to date.
The picture opens with a succinct prologue making exemplary use of the multiplane camera, effortlessly gliding past a series of glass plates depicting a dense forest, ascending to the topmost stained glass windows of a remote castle. We discover how the beast came into being; a handsome prince with a heart of stone, transformed by a beautiful enchantress, outwardly to reflect the hideousness of his vacant soul. The economy of this narration is offset by the sumptuousness in the visuals, keeping the ‘big reveal’ of the beast a secret until considerably later on. From here, we regress to a pastoral, ‘provincial’ French village; the locals, apart from a benevolent bookseller (Alvin Epstein), all considering Belle, a rather perversely headstrong and quixotic young lass. The muscular Gaston, very much tugging at the physical contents of the classically designed ‘Disney prince’, favors Belle also, much to her displeasure and the chagrin of a trio of absent-minded blonde bimbos who would have preferred him for their diverting romantic pleasures. Yet, Gaston, who outwardly possess every virtue of the idolized male paragon, inwardly is as mindless and grotesquely piggish as any swine in the pen; his one ‘friend’, Lefou (Jesse Corti) merely kept as the comparatively diminutive and unprepossessing straggler to fetch and carry; also, to be ruthlessly manhandled whenever Gaston’s testosterone-driven temperament gets the better of him.
Belle’s father, Maurice (Rex Everhart), cruelly teased by Gaston as ‘crazy’, is an inventor of a new automatic wood chipper; a device he sincerely hopes will win him first prize at the fair taking place in the next county. Alas, leaving too late in the afternoon, Maurice is caught unawares and, under the cover of a spooky night, loses his way. Driven deeper into the woods by a torrential downpour and a pack of wolves, Maurice gradually stumbles upon the ‘beast’s castle’; introduced to Lumiere, the candelabra and Cogsworth, the clock. They are congenial. But their momentary respite together is interrupted by ‘the beast’; inhospitable and threatening, choosing to imprison Maurice in a locked tower because he presumes the old man has come merely out of curiosity to laugh and leer. Meanwhile, back at the inventor’s cottage, Belle is forcibly goaded by Gaston to partake of a marriage ceremony he has already arranged without her permission, or even, without first proposing as any amiable young suitor ought.  She denies his claim on her and, in short order, finds a clever way to expel him from the house. While Gaston retreats in humiliation to the local bar, his rage seething, Belle discovers her father’s horse, Phillipe, having returned without him. Worried what has become of Maurice, Belle ventures deep into the woods and is taken to the castle by the horse. The beast yowls and terrorizes but to no avail as the headstrong Belle barters her freedom for her father’s release. Maurice is horrified. But the beast agrees to this exchange and sends Maurice packing in an enchanted coach taking him back into the village.
Meanwhile, Gaston plots with the rather villainous Monsieur D'Arque (Tony Jay); proprietor of the local asylum, to have Maurice committed unless he consents to force Belle to marry him. The unscrupulous D’Arque momentarily resists until Gaston produces a bag of money as his remuneration. Back at the castle, things to not go as planned. The enchanted rose, given to the beast long ago by the enchantress who transformed him, has begun to wither. If the beast cannot learn to love and be loved in return by the time the last of its petals falls to the ground then the beast will remain as such for all time. In despair, the beast lashes out at Belle, who tries to escape the castle. She is attacked by the wolf pack, but spared and protected by the beast, momentarily made unconscious from all the exertion and a rather severe wound to his forearm. Belle could so easily leave the beast to die in the snow. Instead, she affords him mercy and her gratitude, later tending to his wound near a roaring fire. This act of benevolence marks a turning point in their understanding; a friendship steadily grows as the beast learns to respect Belle and she comes to unearth a queer and burgeoning affection for his awkwardness. At an opportune moment, Lumiere, Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts concede the beast has run out of time. He must make a passionate play for Belle’s affections or risk remaining a beast forever.
The beast shares his magic mirror with Belle. In its glass she can see whatever she chooses and so she inquires to know what has become of her beloved father. In reply, Belle is shown Maurice, badly ailing from once again having lost his way in the forest in search of her. Sacrificing his own happiness, the beast encourages Belle to go in search of Maurice. What she quickly finds is Gaston and Lefou keeping vigilant watch over their cottage, lying in wait of Maurice’s return to commit him to the asylum.  Belle is mortified and stubbornly refuses to submit to Gaston’s demand to wed him. She informs the town her father’s story of a hideous beast lurking in the woods is true by using the magic mirror to show the skeptical townsfolk his image. Gaston decides to exploit the beast to his own advantage, raising the specter of a sadistic and blood-thirsty creature who will make off with their children and murder unsuspecting villagers in their beds, lest they raise a posse against it now and storm the castle by surprise to destroy the beast first. Belle is powerless to prevent the anxiety of the mob turned against her and Maurice. They are imprisoned in their basement cellar of their home while the mob, under Gaston’s leadership, march toward the castle with pitchforks and burning torches in hand; a moment, almost verbatim excised from the ole Universal cycle of classic horror movies; notably, Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
The mob charges the castle gates. Lumiere and Cogsworth inquire what is to be done. But the beast, believing he has lost Belle, no longer values his own life. He instructs his staff to do nothing, but rather allow the mob their vengeance he now also bitterly welcomes. However, Lumiere and Cogsworth are not about to take things lying down. Together with the other self-possessed inanimates, they stage a valiant assault on the mob; the villagers startled to be chased and hunted down by stoves, flatware, armoires, brooms, feather-dusters etc. et al. steadily retreating in waves of comedic fear. But Gaston’s cruelty will not be satisfied until he unearths the location of the beast, discovering it heart-sore and isolated in a tower room. Relishing the opportunity to prove his physical supremacy, Gaston attacks and pummels the beast, who refuses to protect itself until he spies Belle charging up the drawbridge, begging for his life to be spared. Realizing she has returned to him out of love rather than pity, the beast becomes invigorated and counterattacks Gaston. The two struggle atop the turrets and steeply sloped rooftops as a heavy rain begins to fall; the beast eventually seizing Gaston by the throat and suspending him over a ledge to his certain death. Gaston reveals his true colors, cowering like a frightened goat. Ever the compassionate, Belle would not see even Gaston destroyed. The beast, having discovered his own heart closely aligned to Belle’s, momentarily resists putting an end to Gaston, affording Gaston the opportunity to inflict what appears to be a fatal wound with his concealed knife. Unable to hang on, the beast releases Gaston from his clutches. He plummets to his death and the beast collapses on an adjacent balcony, weak and dying.
However, moments before he presumably expires, Belle confesses her love for the beast. The last petal of the enchanted rose falls to the ground as Lumiere, Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth look on with an air of tragedy. It is too late for salvation for any of them…or is it? As spectral shafts of light begin to fall from the sky, the beast’s unconscious remains rise up, wrapped in his cloak now resembling a cocoon. Magically, the beast is restored to his former self, the handsome prince, awakening from under the spell and revealing to Belle the beast she loves and he are one in the same. The rainstorm is brought to a magnificent end; the castle’s dark and foreboding exterior, complete with wicked/winged gargoyles, restored to its former glory; a glittery and palatial retreat. The inanimates, Cogsworth, Lumiere, Mrs. Potts et al. are restored to their former human forms; the scene dissolving into the predictable and prerequisite fairytale ending; the prince and Belle, newly husband and wife, sharing in a dance as the courtiers look on with admiration; the camera pulling away to reveal a new stained glass window depicting their story as the Menken/Ashman score reaches its crescendo; immediately followed by Celine Dion and Peobo Bryson’s melodic pop-tune rendition of the title song (a chart-topper in its own right for some time thereafter).
Beauty and the Beast is an exuberant movie; yet one occasionally belying the studio’s as yet cost-cutting anxieties. The aforementioned set pieces are all executed with a highly stylized visual aplomb. And yet, it is the connective tissue in between them that can sometimes appear slightly ‘less than’ or, perhaps, less ‘tricked out’ by direct comparison. It is perhaps grossly unfair to compare any of the renaissance Disney classics to the ones made under Walt’s creative aegis; the latter, having the luxury of time and Walt’s meticulous planning; also, the great advantage of skilled draftsmen like Marc Davis and Ollie Johnston to ‘breathe life’ into these still drawings. In and of themselves, the character designs created for Beauty and the Beast are some of the most engaging as yet in any Disney movie. However, in execution they occasionally tend to feel much ‘looser’ in their movements than anticipated; the beast in profile, as example, frequently looking as though the perspectives of his facial features are in grave danger of falling apart. Ultimately, the mastery in the storytelling, Linda Woolverton’s screenplay (ably assisted by almost a dozen story editors and idea men/women) and the superb pop chart-topping score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman goes a long way to conceal these ‘imperfections’. And indeed, comparatively speaking, if I had to list my favorite Disney movies based solely on the studio’s repertoire of ‘classic fable-inspired’ stories; Beauty and the Beast would come in at #2, right after my all-time favorite, Sleeping Beauty (although, I think it fair to explain, that if we are speaking of the entire Disney animated canon, then Beauty and the Beast falls to #8 in the list of my all-time greats, at least, in my estimation; preceded by Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, Bambi, Fantasia, the animated The Jungle Book, and, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, closely followed up by Pinocchio, The Rescuers, Dumbo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Aladdin, The Lion King, and, The Aristocats).
Shortly before work on the final clean-up animation began, the executive decision was made to jettison ‘Human Again’; a Menken/Ashman tour de force depicting the aspirations of the inanimate objects, who dream of being fulfilled once more in their former human entities, should the romance between Belle and the beast work out to everyone’s advantage. In hindsight, this decision seems to have been made mostly to keep production costs in check, although, at the time it was suggested more to conform to the traditional run time of approximately 90 minutes. Whatever the case, it would take another six years before ‘Human Again’ was reinstated into the movie for the re-release of Beauty and the Beast: The Special Edition into theaters, followed by a deluxe 2-disc Platinum DVD. One of the fascinating, and oft overlooked aspects of the picture is it had a very unusual ‘sneak peek’; the entire movie presented in select theaters almost a whole year ahead of its theatrical release as a ‘work print’ – showing progress made up to that point, with incomplete sequences substituted with pencil tests, hand-drawn animation looking very rough on paper and even still images. The ‘work print’ edition eventually surfaced on LaserDisc as a ‘standalone’ release and later became part of the Platinum Edition DVD and earlier marketed Blu-ray.
But now we have the reissued Walt Disney Signature Collector’s Edition. One would sincerely expect all of the archival goodies featured on the previously released DVD and Blu-ray would have found their way to this re-release. But no: once again, the Walt Disney Company under its present-day management have their hands on the proverbial ‘chicken switch’ when it comes to satisfying their hardcore – even their new generation – fan base. For although this Blu-ray advertises 3 versions of the movie for one’s consideration (the original Blu-ray contained the original theatrical cut, the aforementioned ‘work print’ edition, and finally, the ‘extended version’ with Being Human reinserted), this new to Blu incarnation only contains the theatrical cut and the extended cut. The ‘work print’ has been inexplicably replaced by a ‘sing-a-long’ version that I easily could have done without. I mean, what would have been so wrong with merely providing an edition with subtitles?!? Worse, virtually all of the classic Blu-ray extras, as well as those originally featured on the Platinum Edition DVD have been discarded; Disney Inc. giving viewers the opportunity to go online with a special activation code to access all of this discarded footage without the ability to actually download it for themselves and keep a legitimate ‘hard copy’ in their personal archives. Personally, I think this is a gross oversight on Disney’s part; the company still eager to give us a DVD copy of the movie as a ‘second disc’. Psst, fellas – DVD is dead, or will be very shortly. What a waste of a good ‘second disc’ of possibilities. I would have much preferred the ‘second disc’ contain all of the aforementioned extras from the original release – even in DVD format!
So, what is here? First off: all ‘3’ versions are housed on a single Blu-ray. Image quality is virtually on par with the previously issued Blu-ray and I suspect this is where Disney Inc. has come under the greatest scrutiny since the advent of Blu-ray. In the bad ‘good ole days’ of VHS, the company could ‘retire’ its classic animated features, knowing that by the time they were reissued to home video a good four to six years again, a good many of the ‘tape versions’ had likely worn out and were, for all intent and purposes, in need of a better video master upgrade. The same could arguably be said of the old DVD reissues. But with Blu-ray, done properly, the quality will out for decades yet to follow, if indeed, ever to be in need of an upgrade. Those already owing Beauty and the Beast on Blu-ray Version 1.0 will seriously want to reconsider this V 2.0 because there is absolutely NO good reason to upgrade in terms of video/audio quality. The image, as before, is rich and robust in colors and textures, with exceptional contrast and refined detail. The DTS 5.1 audio is enveloping and gorgeous.
In place of the MIA extra features, Disney has added a few ‘new to Blu’ junkets that really are ‘poor cousins’ to the myriad of expertly produced features gone before them: including two brief featurettes: one with Paige O’Hara affectionately waxing about her career before, during and since Beauty and the Beast, the other, a sort of ‘love in’ between Alan Menken and ‘friends’, who spend a good deal of time simply reminiscing about what the movie has meant to them. There is also #1074: Walt, Fairytales & Beauty and the Beast; a compendium of audio sound bites from Walt, married to a voice over narrations and images that fleetingly cover the impetus for the movie’s creation without actually getting to the creation of the movie itself. For that, as previously mentioned, one has to go to the internet to access all the classic ‘bonus features’. The most superfluous of the new to Blu extras is 25 Fun Facts about Beauty and the Beast, hosted by a pair of Disney Channel (choke!) stars. While the previously released Blu-ray was arguably targeted to children from ages one to ninety-two, this reissue has sincerely limited appeal by comparison. Particularly, for a release advertised as a ‘signature’ edition, the absence of the old extras just seems silly to downright gauche and insulting to real diehard Disney fans. Sorry, but that’s the way I see it.  If you do not already own the original Blu-ray release, my sincere advice is to hunt it down and pay whatever a third party Amazon seller is asking for it, because it really is the better deal. This reissue is simply lacking. For shame, Disney Inc. Another grand opportunity utterly squandered. Bedknobs and Broomsticks…anyone?!?!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)