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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

"If it's not Baroque, don't fix it" - dialogue from the original animated film

To bring Disney's 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast into live action is a feat I would not wish upon anyone, and director Bill Condon deserves some credit for actually attempting to do it.  After all, the original film is so ingrained in modern pop culture, there's no real way to separate our memories of the animated movie from this live action interpretation.  When all is said and done, Condon and his crew have done a good job, and have probably given us the best live action remake we could have hoped for.  But, the question at the end remains the same - Did we really need this?

That's a harder question to answer.  You could defend the decision for this film by saying the movie does add a bit more backstory.  For one thing, it fixes a major plot hole that always hung over the animated film.  That is, how did the townspeople not know about the Beast and his castle when it was right on the outskirts of their village?  Here, we learn in the opening narration that when the Enchantress curses the Beast and his castle staff with her transformation spell, not only does it impact everyone within the castle itself, but the entire town itself, as it forces all the villagers to forget that the Prince and his castle ever existed.  Even the handsome and self-absorbed villain Gaston (played in live action by Luke Evans) and his comic relief sidekick LeFou (a scene-stealing Josh Gad) have been expanded on a little, and are no longer the buffoonish characters they came across in 1991.  Gaston is a bit more clever, calculating and manipulative, while LeFou actually has a personality and conscience that leads him to question his loyalty to his friend by the end.  Oh, and if you're looking for that "LeFou is now gay" thing that has taken the Internet by storm the past couple weeks, it's essentially a blink and you'll miss it moment, which is to be expected.

The changes, however, are minor, as are a couple more that I will leave for you to discover when you watch it.  For the most part, this is a slavishly faithful adaptation of the earlier production.  There's the little town filled with little people who wake up to say "bonjour" to each other every morning, where Belle, still the ultimate bookworm, dreams of something more than the provincial life she is currently leading.  Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) portrays Belle this time, and while she certainly looks the part, there is something off almost from the moment she opens her mouth.  Her singing voice seems awfully thin, and sometimes even gets drowned out by the accompanying orchestra.  As for her overall performance, there is a certain detachment she gives off.  She forever seems emotionally distant and strangely not involved from whatever may be happening around her.  I believe Watson to be a very good actress, and if you need proof, watch her in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  She simply does not get to display the confidence here that should carry the weight of a film such as this.

Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey) fares better as the Beast, a handsome but selfish Prince who has been cursed to take the form of a hairy and horned monstrosity until he can find true love, and earn that love in return.  Despite being hidden under a ton of make up and digital techniques to hide his appearance, he is still able to express emotion and creates a very human performance.  Whenever an actor or actress takes on a role that requires their looks to be hidden in some way or form, the real challenge is to not hide the features so much that the emotions of the performance cannot come through.  Stevens passes the test here, and is as fine as you could hope.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the large cast of enchanted knickknacks, candlesticks, tea pots, clocks and other assorted items who make up a large part of the supporting cast once Belle becomes a prisoner of the Beast's castle.  They are recreated largely with CG, and while there's nothing entirely wrong with how they have been brought to life so to speak, there is something definitely wrong.

It was not until the big, show-stopping "Be Our Guest" number that it really started to bother me.  In the 1991 film, it was a lavish musical number that filled every corner of the screen with high-kicking dinnerware, plates and whatnot.  At the center of it all was the lively Lumiere - animated, vibrant and full of expression.  In the live action remake, Lumiere has essentially been reimagined as a murky mass of bronze CG, with something that kind of resembles a face, but fails to hold any expression or emotion.  He's been drained of all emotion, and while he still seems as eager to serve and entertain as ever, his somewhat soulless face fails to generate any excitement in what is supposed to be one of the scene-stealing moments of the film.  No matter how much Ewan McGregor tries to breathe life into the character through his vocal performance with his silly French accent, he just cannot breathe the same amount of life into the character that we remember from the original.

If Beauty and the Beast does not work completely, it's not for lack of trying.  It has, for the most part, been beautifully mounted, and the cast (save for Watson) really seem to be giving this their all.  Emma Thompson gives off a different, but still warm, vibe as the kindly teapot Mrs. Potts, while Ian McKellen has the right amount of pomp and arrogance in his voice to play the crusty old clock butler, Cogsworth.  You can tell that there was a real attempt here to give something special to those who have long treasured the animated film.  But, for all of its efforts, the movie still ends up with a somewhat cold and unemotional vibe.  I was never fully involved.  Oh, I admired the set designs, costumes, and even a few of the new ideas that the filmmakers attempted to add.  But I was never fully engaged.  I felt like something was keeping me from fully embracing the film as a whole.  And the more I think back on the film, the colder and distant it seems to me.

That this is a movie that is constantly trying to please meant little to me.  It doesn't matter how much you try to please your audience by being faithful to the original, you have to have an understanding as to what made the original work so well.  And here, I think the warmth has been drained from the source material.  While the enchanted objects of the Beast's castle now have a more "realistic" look, it is not for the better, as much of their expression and emotion of their cartoon counterparts are now gone.  The voice acting is good in general, but if the CG characters themselves can't display the right emotion, they're simply failed illusions.  Also, I never quite felt the same bond between Belle and the Beast that I feel every time I watch the original.  Part of this is Watson's strange and off performance, and part of this may be that I just don't feel the same emotion in the screenplay.  It's hard for me to put a finger on, but something just does not feel right, and it kept me at a distance, even when I was admiring the craft up on the screen.

Beauty and the Beast has been made with a great amount of effort and care for the most part, but it simply never came together for me to a point that I can recommend it as an alternative to the original.  Let's face it, the earlier movie does not need an alternative to begin with.  And if you really do desire one, the stage production that once played on Broadway is actually much better than this.  So what are we left with?  A movie that can be lovely to look at sometimes, but lacks a clear heart and soul.

3 comments

3 Comments:

  • I think you are spot on about this movie's coldness, and I'm shocked more reviews aren't calling it out. There's no tension or atmosphere building at all, almost no passion. I was genuinely angry at how half-hearted this gigantic production was (I have loved the animated feature since it was new.). Aside from a brief flashback involving Belle's backstory, I shed not a tear. And I WAS moved to cry by the teaser for Pixar's "Coco"! You're also right that the stage version is superior-- bloated, and a mess if the wrong people are cast, but still sweet and human and joyous. That said, the audience I was with yesterday was enraptured by this film.

    By Blogger Rori Stevens, at 10:19 AM  

  • I'm afraid that's what I don't like about Disney and I don't see that changing with the other live action remakes. They look overly calculated to make the most money with little self identity to justify it. They seem pretty tho. I have the same problem with star wars and the marvel movies. I like those they just don't wow me or they wow me superficially. I actually feel john Carter had tron legacy had more heart or more interesting. But what do I know? They flopped/struggled.

    By Blogger Bill Sanderson Jr, at 5:11 PM  

  • I know they'll never do it, but I'd love to see Disney re-release the animated films at the same time as they release these live-action adaptations.

    I'd bet even money that the animated Beauty and the Beast would draw in more money as a re-release. I've certainly never seen it on the big screen, and would enjoy that more than this cosplay-level live-action version, I think.

    I did once see a very well done play based on the animated film around 1998 or so. But they also made several major changes to streamline the story and avoid the stuff they couldn't recreate (Gaston lived, just got scared away by the Beast; the servants were all large furniture and not tiny silverware and cups, etc) that fit the play better. It was more a musical than a straight adaptation.

    - Whiskey Jack

    By Blogger WhiskeyJack, at 12:21 PM  

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