The most important aspect of any musical is the songs. Songs in a musical should be both memorable and somewhat functional. One or the other is fine, but if most of the songs advance the plot or reveal character andmake the audience want to sing along, then you have a truly great musical. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman composed an arguably perfect set of songs for Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The opening number that encapsulates both Belle and her hometown, the hilarious tune illustrating how formidable a man Gaston is, and the warmly charming "Be My Guest" are just three high points from one of the great soundtracks in movie history. The title track, which is as sappy as Ashman ever got as a lyricist, charmingly acknowledges its own banality ("Tale as old as time/song as old rhyme/beauty and the beast") without minimizing or mocking its inherently sweet description of true love.
Belle herself sidesteps most of the clichés surrounding Disney heroines. Her love for the beast is unexpected, mostly because she dreams of independence and adventure, not romance. She is a strong female character whose love is won through kindness, selflessness, and honesty, and not given away just because the lead male character is attractive. Classic songs, memorable characters, and adult (for Disney) love combine with such joy and skill in Beauty and the Beast that it became the first animated Best Picture nominee in Academy history. This is not just a great animated film; this is a great film. Period.
[In January of 2012, a new 3D version of Beauty and the Beast was released into U.S. theaters after playing on screens throughout Europe and Asia. Though the film looked and sounded as good as ever, the 3D effects were largely of the forgettable "View-Master" variety, offering the film a pleasant but ultimately unnecessary sense of depth that did little to dazzle outside of the classic "Be Our Guest" and ballroom sequences. Following The Lion King 3D and preceding Finding Nemo 3D, Monsters Inc. 3D, and The Little Mermaid 3D, Beauty and the Beast 3D proved that even with 21st century film technology, it's difficult to improve upon perfection. -- Jason Buchanan]