Sunday, April 30, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

Alternate Title:  Hermione Granger and the Castle of Hallucinogenic Allergens
One sentence synopsis:   A bookish girl from a parochial village in fairy tale France becomes the prisoner of a terrible beast locked in a castle until someone learns to love him.

Things Havoc liked:  Though it has its detractors, I stand by the notion that 1991's Beauty and the Beast is one of the finest works that Disney's Animation studio ever produced, a small step behind the Lion King as the best Disney film. A Golden Globe and Oscar-winning film, the first (and only) animated movie ever nominated for a Best Picture award at the Academy Awards, and a film selected for preservation by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant". And now, following the... success(?) of last year's Live Action Jungle Book remake, a film that has also been re-imagined in live action form, thanks to the unstinting efforts of the director of Twilight - Breaking Dawn (yipee...).

As you all know, I was rather lukewarm on the subject of the Jungle Book remake (my compatriot Corvidae went so far as to put on her list of worst films of the year), and did not actually intend to go see this one, unconvinced as I was that a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast could be anything but an awkward mess, given the strength of the original. Cooler heads prevailed (mostly due to the fact that I owed several people after the Suicide Squad disaster), so the question thus became, having been dragged into the theater by main force, what did I think of the re-imagined live version of an all-time animated classic?

The answer? I loved it.

Beauty and the Beast, in its modern, live-action form, has lost absolutely nothing of the charm it evidenced some 26 years ago, and has, in fact, layered considerable additions on top of it. Despite all of my misgivings, despite the evident awkwardness that a live-action musical generally involves, despite the middling results the last time Disney tried this, this time, in this year, this movie is just wonderful, though whether this is because of careful production, the underlying strength of the source material, or both is somewhat difficult to say. But if we're going to discuss the virtues of this film, the best place to begin is, as is often the case, the cast. The film stars Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, the former of Harry Potter fame, the latter of Downton Abbey and little else, as the titular Beauty and Beast, and both are excellent, with Watson affecting the same sort of bookish charm she brought to the Potter series , while Stevens cuts the bestial rage with the pomposity of an over-educated aristocrat, which is not the worst decision ever. Both actors are called upon to sing quite a lot (naturally) and both do very well at it, particularly Stevens, whose big solo number Evermore (a new song written specifically for the film) is probably the strongest of the lot overall, no small feet given the songs that the rest of the movie is replete with. The big surprise though is neither Watson nor Stevens but Luke Evans of all people, the quasi-useless doofus from the Hobbit films and last year's High-Rise, who is almost perfect as the swaggering asshole non-hero Gaston. Though Evans lacks Gaston's oversized physicality (as would anyone not named The Rock), he lacks pretty much nothing else, delivering a performance that is melodramatic and over-the-top in all the right ways, the sort of performance that will make me forget an actor's flaws and embrace their strengths, strengths which appear to involve being campy as hell, something I've noticed before with actors I don't much care for (Jessica Chastain comes to mind).

But the real strength of the cast comes from the supporting cast, either on-screen or off, which includes Ewan McGregor taking on the role of Lumiere, a role previously played by the late, great, Jerry Orbach, using one of the most outrageous French accents that film records. McGregor, following in Orbach's footsteps, matches that accent with an awful one of his own, which is the manifestly correct move. The rest of the castle cast involves luminaries such as Ian McKellan as Cogsworth (bringing all his Gandalfian grumpiness to the role), Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts (the CG face of whom will give you nightmares), Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette (upgraded to a talking character), and several entirely new servants/furnitures including the irreplaceable Stanley Tucci as the irascible Maestro Cadenza, a harpsichord, and husband to the operatic Madame de Garderobe (Audra McDonald). Though these performers mostly serve as voice actors, their work is unformly excellent, and complements well the surreal rococo stylings of the various characters, from the over-elaborate brass finishings on Lumiere to the intricate arms and gears comprising Cogsworth's face, to an animate wardrobe that could only have cost the lives of fifty keyframe animators. But lest we all drown in computer-generated tchotchkes (that's a real word, people), we also receive the services of Kevin Kline, one of my favorite actors working, playing Belle's father Maurice in a more subdued role than the mad scientist of the previous version, and Josh Gad, an actor who continues to surprise me, playing Le Fou, in the 1991 version, a simple comic relief character from the original film who here is... well still a comic relief character, certainly, but with a very different slant, being portrayed as a screamingly gay sidekick whose unrequited love for Gaston is invariably interpreted as platonic admiration (to truly hilarious effect several times). This attribute got the movie banned in several regressive places like Malaysia, Kuwait, Russia (momentarily), and portions of northeastern Alabama. It's statistics like these that I must rely upon when making my weekly decisions as to which movies will make the cut around here.

The score of Beauty and the Beast has never been in question, as it's one of the finest musical scores to come from an animated film in history, a fact proven when Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman were nominated for three separate songs at the Academy Awards and won one of them. Most of the songs from the original film had a fairly rough style to them, sung as they were by actors who did not have a background in song, and who were occasionally saddled with ludicrous accents to boot. The new film retains those attributes, rough edges and all, supplementing them with new songs either taken from the Broadway musical or written specifically for the film itself, all of which fit in perfectly to the general symphonic aesthetic of the show as a whole. The world is visualized in absurd splendor, with the Beast's Castle being re-imagined into an elaborate riot of baroque artistry that could easily have been taken from the palatial estates of Louis XIV, while the pastoral bustle of Belle's village and the spooky atmosphere of the haunted woods surrounding the castle retain the sense of semi-animated artificiality that plays well with timeless tales like this. As to the plot, it obviously runs the same route as the original film, but with additions that tighten or expand on the story just a bit here and there. We get a renewed focus on the servants themselves, on their desperation to return to human form, and on what it was that caused the enchantress to curse them all in the first place alongside their noble lords. Belle's own backstory (and that of her father) is embellished upon to give her a bit more depth than 'the nerdy daughter of a lunatic'. But the biggest shifts come in the conversations and scenes between Belle and the Beast directly. Beauty and the Beast has long been subject to criticisms that it portrayed an abusive, perhaps Stockholm-syndrome-style relationship, and while the dynamic between the two is still strained, a great effort is made by the film to show why the two might fall in love, and what attributes they share, playing up the fact that, curse or no curse, the Beast was once a Prince, and thus well-educated and erudite, something which would naturally appeal to a bookish girl desperate to escape the limited intellectual horizons of her provincial town. A scene in which Belle mentions that she would like to see Paris results in the Beast reminiscing about the times he spent there, presenting (rather paradoxically) a wider world trapped within his castle than she was experiencing outside of it. I'm not going to pretend that the subtext isn't still awkward, it is, and unavoidably so in all likelihood. But the effort to update the story and polish it further with a narrative that fits a more modern conception of the fairy tale strikes just the right chord, and really serves to push the film into a truly superb work in its own right.

Things Havoc disliked: Fair or unfair, a movie like a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast is going to be saddled with comparisons, generally unflattering, with the original, and while it stands quite well against the best that the original has to offer in many cases, there are obvious areas where more could perhaps have been done. A couple of the songs, particularly Gaston's number, Be Our Guest, and the Mob song are mixed quite poorly (this afflicted the Mob song in the original film as well), rendering it actually quite difficult to figure out what people are singing about, even if one knows the lyrics by heart, as I do. This tends to afflict the earthy ensemble pieces more than the grandiose ballads for which the movie is more famous, but it does spoil some of the charm of the numbers in question. Moreover the action in the movie, which was energetic, frantic, and frightening in the animated film, is here somewhat muted. Gaston looks almost bored as he calmly shoots at the Beast during his ultimate scene, the wolf attacks seem rather perfunctory, like the dogs-attacking-the-Hulk scene from Ang Lee's Hulk, and many of the human characters seem occasionally perplexed as to what sort of emotion they should be emoting at a particular moment. And while the makeup for the Beast is excellent (sharing even a few notes from the Ron Pearlman TV series of the late 80s), and the blend between CG and real life is all but seamless, there is nevertheless a certain loss of freedom when it comes to a movie that was once animated and is no longer. The Beast is less feral, the fight scenes less violent, the slapstick comedy less hilarious, and the camera work less unconstrained, thanks to the basic, unavoidable fact that real people are acting in a real location, even if it's a location covered with green-screens, with a bevy of computers on-hand to assist in producing the necessary magic.

Final thoughts:   One is tempted, at this stage, to ask the inevitable question of whether the new Beauty and the Beast is better or worse than its illustrious predecessor from the Silver Age of Disney Animation. I have thought much on that question in the weeks since I saw the movie, and have no answer for it, but I do know that the new film is worthy of the old, and that alone places it in rare company. Maybe it's simply the material itself that's so strong, the Menchin songs and timeless nature of the tale itself, which does indeed date back to the mid-1700s if not before. Maybe it's the quality of the cast or the new additions to plot and soundtrack. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for the right sort of fairy tale. But for whatever reason, I truly loved Beauty and the Beast, just as I once loved the original, and for a remake to induce anything like that to its audience is unheard of, even in these remake-obsessed days that we live in. But even if the film does not have the same impact upon you, either because you never much liked the original in the first place, or because you find that the deviations made from the original's template are simply not acceptable, we are still left with a charming, wonderful, and warm rendition of a timeless story.

Ultimately, Beauty and the Beast is a fantastic movie, one of the finest if not the finest that I have seen so far this year. Whether you take that statement in the context of its predecessor or not, all that really matters, in the end, is whether you will enjoy the act of watching the film. And to that, my only suggestion is to go forth and determine for yourself.

Final Score:  8/10

Next Time:  Time for some Monkey Business.

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