By now, we've all gotten used to the Disney Plan for Animation: Release an animated movie with as many possible elements in common with previously successful films, and if it takes off, release sequels to video. With really successful movies, like Aladdin, those sequels may even spawn a television cartoon series.
Unfortunately, the direct-to-video sequels thus far have been disappointing. The Return of Jafar and Aladdin and the King of Thieves, while commercially successful, were rather pale knockoffs of the original, in story, song, and animation. What is so frustrating about this is that Disney had every reason to make the Aladdin sequels really good. If the first one had been within spitting distance of theatrical quality, it would have sold so well that every child, and every adult with a child's heart, would have purchased it and Disney could have extended their dynasty of original animation to video releases as well. Disney could have been so rich that the government would have been forced to give the company a license to print their own money. Instead, the resulting video releases were only a notch above TV animation. By the time King of Thieves came out, we were ready to give up on Disney's OAV (original animated video, a term originally coined for the much more common anime releases) efforts for good.
This winter, however, Disney has released Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas. While it's still not in the same league as the original film, it is a much better effort than either of the two Aladdin videos.
Song as old as time --
keep releasing the sequels!
When we heard about this sequel to Beauty and the Beast, we were concerned that any film taking place after the original would not feature the Beast, who was a large part of the appeal of the first movie. Fortunately, this movie takes place during the winter montage of the original film; it is presented as an "untold chapter." Thus all of the original characters are present, and with their original voices (including Jerry Orbach, Angela Lansbury, & David Ogden-Stiers). Also present are several new characters, with equally impressive voice actors. And let us not forget the inimitable Frank Welker, man of a thousand voices, most of them attributed to animals.
As Christmas approaches during Belle's first few months in the Beast's castle, the enchanted servants inform her that the Beast has forbidden the celebration of Christmas in the castle. It was on Christmas Day that the self-serving prince turned away the enchantress in disguise and was placed under a spell, transorming him into the Beast. Not wanting to celebrate the day of his own downfall, he calls a halt to Christmas.
Belle, of course, plans a Christmas celebration without him, enlisting the help of the various servants-turned-household-objects. This leads to the introduction of Angelique (Bernadette Peters), the castle's former decorator, now transformed into an Angel tree-topper. Excited at the prospect of celebrating Christmas once again, an initially reluctant Angelique and the other servants begin to decorate the castle and make preparations.
The impressively-animated Forte.
Predictably, some of the castle's residents are conspiring to ruin Belle's Christmas. These residents are Maestro Forte and Fife, a pipe organ and piccolo who don't quite fit in with the rest of castle life. Maestro Forte (voiced by Tim Curry) was once the court composer with a penchant for gloomy compositions. Fife (Paul Reubens, now apparently completely forgiven for past sins) is Forte's crony, doing Forte's dirty work at the promise of a solo written expressly for the piccolo. Because the Beast's depression has turned him on to Forte's dark music, Forte feels the need to defend his newfound territory -- even if it means killing Belle. In the end, of course, there will be a happy ending, because this is not only a Disney film, it's a Disney film about Christmas.
As we mentioned before, the first thing to suffer in previous Disney OAV sequels was the animation. Characters became distorted, the frame rate dropped tremendously, and the backgrounds were just plain shoddy. Fortunately, Enchanted Christmas doesn't suffer as much. Most of the character animation, while not theater-quality, is well above average, and the character design has barely changed. We think we can detect a slight change in Belle, but the other characters are flawless. The specialty animation, including the entirely computer-animated Maestro Forte, is dazzling. Several musical sequences feature uniquely-animated segments that are distinct from the rest of the film, and quite memorable. Watch for Belle's storybook sequence and the ectoplasmic Cupids in Forte's big song.
The music, too, is above par. The tunes in the Aladdin sequels were either forgettable or based on tunes from the original film, but these songs are both original and memorable. We would have liked to have heard more from Bernadette Peters, one of the most accomplished singers in voice acting, but she was given at least one big number, so we did get something.
Like all Disney movies, Enchanted Christmas has a message, and it hammers away at that message until all viewers are guaranteed to remember it. Fortunately, this film's message is the same on multiple levels: just as Belle reminds us that Christmas represents hope, so too does Enchanted Christmas represent hope for quality OAVs from Disney. Okay Mickey, don't drop the ball now.