Keep An Eye on the Furniture

The visual voodoo of an Addams Family portrait and the shimmering spell of a Disney cartoon are triumphs of style

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Let's go see a movie. O.K. But what do we see? Often, we see what we hear: the dialogue that makes us laugh, or the music that cues our tears. If we do look at a film, it's to watch the actors' fine faces emoting at high pitch. Everything else, everything that touches our senses more subtly -- the lighting, the decor, the very design of the film -- is just furniture. We go to Macy's for that stuff, not to the movies.

As if in splendid conspiracy, two new films insist on being stared at. They can get away with this affront to dullness because they are for kids, whose eyes have not yet been educated to squint, and because they have the cartoonish spirit. Beauty and the Beast, a fairy tale, is Disney's 30th animated feature; The Addams Family, a comic ghost story, is a flip book based on Charles Addams' drawings. Both films are defiantly artificial, with fancy musical numbers and design schemes that carry not only the mood but most of the humor. And both movies have talking furniture.

The anthropomorphic fixtures in The Addams Family -- the fidgety hand, groaning gate, turbulent books -- will be familiar from the TV series (1964-66). But there's an upscale imagination at play in this live-action film. Director Barry Sonnenfeld and writers Larry Wilson and Caroline Thompson can mine as hearty a laugh from the preposterously banal floral pattern on the Addamses' sofa, or from the picture-perfect contrast of bulbous-eyed Raul Julia (as Gomez Addams) and slinky Anjelica Huston (his wife Morticia), as they can from Morticia's order to her daughter: "Wednesday, play with your food!"

This Addams Family is basically a series of variations on TV's sick joke of domestic normality. When the children try to sell lemonade to a girl who insists that it be made from real lemons, they ask if her Girl Scout cookies are made from real Girl Scouts. Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) may have spent too many years in the Bermuda Triangle -- could be he's not really Uncle Fester -- but plot twists need not concern us. It's the filigree work that's worth watching.

Beauty and the Beast, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, is more imposing, close to seamless. Its animators' pens are wands; their movement enchants. Enchantment is at the heart of the story too. A selfish prince (voiced by Robby Benson) lives under the curse of a righteous witch: that he be a beast, confined to his castle, until he can love and be loved. Pretty Belle (Paige O'Hara) will be his cure -- if she can shake off her revulsion at % being his prisoner and shiver out of the clutches of Gaston (Richard White), a way-too-handsome galoot. In effect, she is trapped between two wolf men. She can see through Gaston's looking-glass ego, but it takes time for her to find the vulnerability within the Beast's barbaric, heroic grief. He must be feared, then pitied, and finally loved.

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