Reviewed by
Chris Galloway

Title: Beauty and the Beast: Criterion (1946)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision

Jean Cocteau's definitive cinematic vision of the romantic fairy tale, with its surrealistic sets and visual effects, has supplanted the original fable in the modern imagination.

Director: Jean Cocteau
Cast: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parely, Nane Germon, Michel Auclair, Marcel Andre.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono, French Digital Mono; subtitles: English; single sided - single layered; 32 chapters; rated NR; 93 min.; $39.95, street date 5/26/98.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by critic Arthur Knight; Documentary on the Film and the Fable; The Original Fable translated into English.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: D/D+/C

I don't think I have to explain the tale of "Beauty and the Beast" because I think it's safe to say that everyone should know it if only for Disney's take on the story. But for those who don't know it I'll give the quick synopsis. A young woman (Belle, French for beautiful) must give herself to a beast to spare the life of her father. While repulsed by him at first she begins to see past his exterior and falls in love with him. The moral to the story does not really need to be explained and it's a tale so simple that children will even understand it, which helps its appeal.

For those thinking that Disney finally released one of their more-beloved films on DVD, I am sorry but this pertains to the original Jean Cocteau film. I admit being one of those people that like the Disney version but I do prefer the Cocteau version over it more for the fact that this version is more magical an experience (there's a sentence you won't hear me using too often) and for the effort that went into this one. And no singing teacups are present in this one.

Animation has no limits. You can do whatever you want. You want a beast you draw a beast. You want some magical effects, you draw them in or put them in with a computer. Cocteau made this film live-action. The effects and effort that went into it are quite outstanding, especially for the time. Nowadays people will probably consider the effects cheap but they still look good.

Effects like Belle appearing to float down the hall, candles that light on their own and someone rising out of a bed all look amazing but are relatively simple. The one aspect of the film I still get a kick out of is the beast outfit. That thing today still looks fairly better than monster outfits of today (and if it looks that good from 1946 I still can't see why the ape outfits in Congo look so bad).

Cocteau is known more for his wish to bring poetry to screen and he did so with this one quite effectively, though thankfully not as overblown as his first film, Blood of a Poet (which I admit I only saw a bit of but will view it in its entirety when Criterion releases that Cocteau set). The camera moves gracefully as the actors in their movement as well. Symbolisms, such as the key that the beast entrusts to Belle pop up everywhere. The costumes scream fantasy and the conclusion, while I guess cheesy in its own right, still has a magical effect.

It doesn't hurt that the movie is actually pretty fun and entertaining. While I guess a majority of people will still prefer the Disney one, I can't see why some children and some adults wouldn't get sucked into this one. I enjoy it, even at my age now and is one I'm glad to finally get in my collection.

The DVD:

The film deserves a special treatment, but unfortunately Criterion's release is fairly crummy. The film is presented on a single-sided, single-layered disc and in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.

While the age of the film is an issue, it still looks very bad. After seeing transfers by Criterion on films like Grand Illusion or Columbia's transfers of their older films lately, this one is extremely disappointing. This is one of the first ones that Criterion released on DVD, however, it's still no excuse.

The print is in terribly rough shape but after watching restoration demonstrations on discs like The Third Man I know its possible to remove a lot of what's here. Scratches, tears, jumpy frames, slices, burns, finger prints and more plague the film throughout. While I know this is from the age of the film itself, they could have been removed. There is a restoration demonstration provided and it shows some of the work done on it but I still can't see why they could not have gone a little further.

Black and white levels are pretty good although not outstanding. Sharpness is fairly good but on long shots it can get incredibly soft. Moiré effects appear in some of the clothing worn but not too often. This could be the best the picture has looked but DVD definitely allows more to be done.

The mono soundtrack isn't that bad but nothing great. While the track doesn't really ever come off harsh it is somewhat distorted. Background noise is a problem basically all throughout, also associated with the age of the film. But also considering other mono tracks I've heard from about the same time (and even Criterion's somewhat good work on their M DVD) there is still more that can be done on it.

For supplements Criterion has decided to add a few but nothing too worthwhile. There is a commentary track provided by film historian that feels more like a dreaded "audio essay". This is not too enthralling a track but offers some interesting production pointers and how Cocteau managed to pull some of the effects. There is a bit on Cocteau's history but a big chunk is devoted to pointing out what the film should mean to the viewer.

A documentary is also provided for a short lived series that covered some of the great directors in cinema and Cocteau was one of the featured directors. It's also not too enthralling a segment, as the host talks in that "artsy-fartsy" language I hate so much, where you have to use 7 big words instead of one mid-sized word to explain something. It tends to go on and on and offers nothing I found worthwhile.

You also get a lot of text. The disc includes the original fable translated into English. Not too bad an idea. New Line did the same thing with the Pied-Piper story for The Sweet Hereafter disc. But they made it more fun to read, with bigger text and "pretty pictures". Criterion gives you text, text and more text and crams as much as they can on one screen. Even on the 34" TV I viewed it on it still looked small. I actually stopped reading it and just flipped through it. It's a neat idea, but it's all in the presentation to keep viewers happy.

I can't actually recommend the disc as I am disappointed by the restoration. The film definitely deserves better. I can recommend giving the film a look if the enchanted story appeals to you, but I can see many being extremely disappointed in the Criterion disc.

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