A Classic Feel Already -- Voices, Visuals Fit Superbly In Disney's `Beast'

XXX 1/2 "Beauty and the Beast," animated Disney feature with the voices of Paige O'Hara, Robby Benson, Angela Lansbury, Richard White. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, from a script by Linda Woolverton. Aurora Village, Alderwood, Bay, Broadway Market, Crossroads, Kent, Renton Village, SeaTac Mall, Totem Lake. "G" - General audiences. --------------------------------------------------------------- This season's competing major-studio cartoon features offer a choice, not an echo: Spielberg's "An American Tail: Fievel Goes West" is a clever comedy that tops the 1986 film that spawned it, while Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" aims straight for the tear ducts.

Both movies achieve their G-rated goals, but Disney's retelling of this much-filmed fairy tale feels more like a classic. It's exceptionally difficult to make an audience care for animated characters unless they're mermaids or anthropomorphized animals or insects, yet the Disney animators, with a big assist from the vocal talents of a superb cast, have pulled it off.

As Belle, the independent, book-loving heroine, a Broadway actress-singer named Paige O'Hara does a spirited job of investing the character with warmth, intuition and maturity. Robby Benson is startlingly effective as the voice of the handsome, spoiled prince who is turned into a beast and can't be changed back until he finds someone who will declare her love for him.

Richard White is hilarious as the vain village hunk, Gaston, who boasts that he uses antlers for all of his decorating and has hair on every inch of his body, yet doesn't understand why Belle doesn't swoon at the feet of someone "as beautiful as me" who is "everyone's favorite guy."

Belle's pun-happy helpers at the beast's castle include talking candelabra (Jerry Orbach), an officious mantel clock (David Ogden Stiers) and a matronly teapot, named Mrs. Potts and played by Angela Lansbury, who gets to sing the title tune. (She's beginning to sound like Verna Felton, the voice of the fairy godmother in Disney's "Cinderella.")

The songs were written by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, who did the same for "The Little Mermaid," which is widely regarded as the best feature-length cartoon since Disney's golden age.

"Beauty and the Beast" follows the musical formula of that film: The heroine has an opening song that expresses her yearnings ("Something There" takes the place of "Part Of Your World") and her helpers put on a show-stopping number using whatever's handy as props ("Be Our Guest" replaces "Under the Sea").

Yet there's rarely a sense of deja vu, perhaps because the heroine is so different from "Mermaid's" dependent Ariel, and her dilemma is more poignant. There's more at stake here in dramatic terms; Linda Woolverton's script taps into the emotional core of the story and demonstrates why it has so much more resonance than, say, "The Frog Prince" or "The Phantom of the Opera."

The animation in "Beauty" is also more imaginative, especially the use of the multiplane camera and computer-animation effects that heighten the three-dimensional appearance of a couple of scenes. The stylized opening, which uses only narration and drawings to set up the story, is a risk that pays off.

The directors, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, are Disney veterans, but they've never handled a project of this scope before, and they come off with flying colors. The movie is a model of clear, precise storytelling, of state-of-the-art technique used to advance a story rather than show off.

The major problem with "Beauty and the Beast" isn't unique to the Disney animators, who have not quite managed to pull off the Beast's inevitable transformation at film's end (they've never had much luck with those bland Prince Charmings anyway). You may feel the way Greta Garbo did when she emerged from Jean Cocteau's live-action 1946 version.

"Give me back my Beast," she is reported to have said.