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Disney's Beauty and the Beast is their best film since Fantasia

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.

Voices of Paige O'Hara, Robbie Benson,

David Ogden Stiers and Angela Lansbury.

Now playing at Loews Copley Place.

By ELAINE McCORMICK

WHEN I SAW FANTASIA, I thought, "This is the best animated movie ever made" -- and it was. But it is no longer. Beauty and the Beast goes far beyond Fantasia. It has the same lavish animation, rich orchestral score, and creative choreography. But it also has a story line that carries you along breathlessly, and delightful characters.

The funniest characters are the magical denizens of the enchanted castle. Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), the womanizing candlestick, has a rakish glint in his eye and a smirk on his, um, rim. Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), the type-A clock, worries, frets and leaves a trail of springs and screws behind him. Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury), the motherly enchanted teapot with a British accent, natters to her cracked teacup son, Chip (Bradley Michael Pierce), and dishes out advice to whoever will listen. And the enchanted footrest prances around, barking shrilly and wagging its tassel.

The enchanted castle gives plenty of opportunity for hilarious scenes like Lumiere singing "Be Our Guest," backed by a chorus of tap-dancing plates with matchstick canes and forks can-canning on huge, tiered cakes, spoons doing water ballet in urns of punch and feather dusters waving their skirts like Toulouse-Lautrec dancers.

But the best characters are Belle and the Beast (Paige O'Hara and Robby Benson). "In the original fairy tale," according to the producer, Don Hahn, "Beauty's father goes to the castle and picks a rose. The beast is enraged, throws him in a dungeon, but agrees to let him go if he sends his daughter back in his place. She very passively follows her father's instructions, and the rest of the story is essentially about two people having dinner together every night with the beast repeatedly asking her to marry him." I can easily imagine a '50s animated version of Beauty and the Beast, with Beauty a blond, blue-eyed innocent in a filmy dress, who is overcome by the Beast's virility, and falls in love with him, even as he holds her prisoner.

Fortunately, in the '90s, we no longer have to endure Wonderbread romances. Instead, Belle is smart, gutsy and independent. No damsel-in-distress, Belle rescues her father twice, stands up to the Beast consistently, and holds her own against an angry mob.

She rejects her conceited suitor, Gaston (Richard White), who is virile to the point of testosterone poisoning, because the perfect marriage he imagines involves relaxing in his hunting lodge, with "my little wife massaging my feet, while the children play on the floor." "Imagine me," Belle laughs, "the wife of that boarish, brainless" man. "There must be more than this provincial life."

Gaston simply cannot understand why she refuses to marry him. He's the best hunter in the village. He's as big as a barge. He has biceps thicker than Popeye's. And "every inch of [him] is covered with hair." What more could a girl

want? Certainly, his entourage of fawning blondes in pastel dresses thinks he's just heavenly.

But Belle's no ordinary girl. She wants romance and adventure. Only with the Beast can she find both. But first, he needs some taming. His temper is outrageous. He shreds paintings and trashes his room until it's worse than a frat house. He prowls around the house, growling and roaring at everyone, until even the wardrobe is afraid of him. He's used to being the king in his castle, and he expects to continue to get his way. He hasn't counted on Belle.

Belle is also used to getting her own way. For every demand the Beast has, Belle has a contradictory answer. When he orders her to join him for dinner, she locks herself in her room. When he roars outside her door, "I thought I told you to come down to dinner," she snaps back, "I'm not hungry." When he threatens, "You can't stay in there forever," she tosses back, "Oh, yes, I can." They become locked in a contest of wills in which the Beast finally succumbs, because he

has more to gain -- the breaking of the enchantment.

Under Belle's influence, the Beast starts walking erect, rather than prowling like a wolf; eating gracefully, instead of slopping like a pig; dressing neatly, instead of roaming around dressed like a caveman; and most of all, he starts controlling his temper. Belle starts out brave, bright and determined, and by the end of the movie, she's still brave, bright and determined, but she is also in love. The Beast undergoes a complete personality change, gradually becoming more lovable, until, by the end, he's a soft, sensitive, New Age Beast.

In so many movies and animated films, the girl ends up loving the man because of his virility and machismo, even when loving him means curtailing her own freedom. But in Beauty and the Beast, Belle loses nothing by loving the Beast. The Beast, by loving Belle, rids himself of his enchantment, and gains a delightful partner. You can't help but suspect that, after a couple of years of living happily ever after, the Beast may lapse somewhat into his former demanding self, but you know that when he does, Belle will be strong enough to handle it.

When I was growing up, cartoons implied that girls had to look like Barbie dolls or be as cute and cuddly as Pebbles Flintstone to get by. Even after the regular film industry realized that it wasn't cool

to produce sexist films, the animation industry continued to crank them out.

But finally, hooray, hooray, they've come around. Betty Boop, Jane Jetson and Minnie Mouse, watch out!