ABC celebrates the delayed 30th anniversary of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with a TV special modeled after The Little Mermaid Live. As with that 2019 celebration, musical numbers are performed by celebrities, while spoken sections from the animated feature fill in the space between. However, the approach is a little different this time around, largely due to the presence of a host in Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration. Here’s what you can expect when you tune into the special on Thursday, December 14th, at 8/7c.
Credited as “The Narrator,” Rita Moreno is more of a master of ceremonies (the prologue narration is still the voice of David Ogden Stiers), hosting a studio audience and sprinkling the production with facts about the making of the film. From introducing animator Mark Henn as he draws Belle to explaining what storyboards are as she introduces one of the film’s memorable moments in its layout form, the screen legend gives modern TV audiences a look at how animated films used to be made. She promises to peel back the curtain and showcase never-before-seen moments from the making of the film, but as a bonus feature junkee, I didn’t see anything here that can’t also be viewed in bonus features on the film’s numerous special edition releases.
All 6 songs from the animated classic are performed (“Belle,” “Gaston,” “Be Our Guest,” “Something There,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Mob Song”), adding just one number to the production – “Evermore” from the 2017 live-action remake. It’s inclusion makes sense with the casting of Josh Groban as the Beast in this version (he recorded the “pop version” of the song). But with The Little Mermaid Live having set a precedent of pulling several songs from the Broadway production, it feels odd that “Human Again” wasn’t included, since it was actually written for the film (and was Howard Ashman’s favorite song from the project). However, Rita Moreno does take a minute to celebrate the success of the stage show, featuring footage from its recent West End revival.
Unlike The Little Mermaid Live, this entire special has been pre-recorded and it appears that none of the singing is actually live. The Walt Disney Studios serves as the backdrop for “Belle,” with H.E.R. moving through the lot and stopping at flat standees that represent drawn backgrounds from the film. This number includes a few cameos from the voice of Belle (Paige O’Hara), the voice of Gaston (Richard White), and composer Alan Menken, who later appears at the piano next to Shania Twain for the first performance of “Beauty and the Beast.” As “Belle” concludes, the ensemble moves into one of the soundstages, where the largely LED sets await to bring the rest of the story to life.
For the most part, the lip-synching is excusable. After all, you don’t really expect Martin Short and David Alan Grier to give their best vocal performances while dancing to “Be Our Guest.” But at the same time, the special seems to have taken an all-or-nothing approach, with ballads like “Evermore” and “Beauty and the Beast” feeling underwhelming largely because the performers stand and sing, lip-synching for no apparent reason. What’s sad is that both Shania Twain and Josh Groban could’ve knocked both numbers out of the park live and you ultimately feel like everyone was robbed by this decision.
The special condences the animated segments in between songs, in some instances swapping them out with moments of interpretive dance. Jon Jon Briones plays Belle’s father Maurice (a non-singing part) in several scenes, including facing off against performers dressed as wolves, which feels like the Mouse King battle from The Nutcracker. Dancers also become the enchanted rose, filmed from above like a Busby Berkeley musical number, separating to become falling petals. The moment Belle rescues her father has also been acted out, which comes with the reveal of Josh Groban in a Beast costume, which looks like a cross between a walkaround puppet from Where the Wild Things Are and a Gundam mecha. Groban’s face is visible through the rib cage during “Something There,” although he thankfully ditches the suit when performing “Evermore.
Overall, Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration achieves its goal of honoring a true Disney classic with a modern twist. While The Little Mermaid Live feels better executed with its more tangible sets and true live performances, having a host to peel away the process of making the film was a nice new addition to the format. If ABC revisits it again in the future, with Aladdin actually celebrating 30 years in 2022 and The Lion King hitting this milestone in 2024, I hope we can return to live singing for the numbers while continuing to fold in expanded songs.
Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration airs Thursday, December 15th, at 8/7c on ABC. It will be available to stream on Disney+ beginning Friday, December 16th.