Skip to main content

Someone turn me back into a clock, please!

Beauty and the Beast
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Eh, uh. Okay. I was never that taken with the ‘90s Disney animation renaissance. There were a few exceptions (Hercules, The Emperor’s New Groove – the atypical ones, basically), but mostly, they seemed overly concerned with distilling the classic era pictures in a staid and respectful, rather than inspired, manner. Formulaic, basically, and a formula they stuck to for half a dozen pictures that yielded tidy financial dividends. I can quite understand their appeal, but for me it was the Wolfgang Reitherman era, increasingly short-changed as it was, that was where it was at. This live-action remake does exactly what it was destined to do: satisfies those nostalgic for the quarter-of-a-century-old “original” while introducing it to a new generation (mostly, the old one’s kids). Beauty and the Beast is an immaculately-fashioned facsimile, and it’s engaging enough in fulfilling that limited purpose, but it’s also difficult to feel much of anything for it in terms of achievement, innovation, or indeed, its xeroxed heart.


It’s also something of the exception thus far in terms of quite how rigidly its makers have stuck to the template of the animated predecessor, songs and all. Cinderella wasn’t such a departure, admittedly (it dispensed with the ditties), but has the virtue of being a much-told and distinctive-in-its-own-right tale. The first thing people think of in respect of Beauty and the Beast is the 1991 movie (and then probably Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman, and then, distantly alas, Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête). The Jungle Book unwisely (albeit, it certainly didn’t hinder its box office any) shoehorned in several songs from the 1967 (Reitherman) picture while ploughing an otherwise distinctive narrative furrow (whatever your opinion of the finished movie, and I was tepid on it, at least it had that). Likewise, last summer’s unfairly ignored Pete’s Dragon went its own route. The most extreme critiques of this Beauty and the Beast have compared it to Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot Psycho, which is a little excessive, as there’s enough distinctiveness in transposing the medium to make it more than just a curiosity (as, again, the box office suggests). That said, it does, at times, feels like a souped-up, karaoke remount, or an extended version of those Oscar ceremony Best Song nominee performances.


So, Beauty and the Beast, a movie that teaches you it’s possible to win the woman of your dreams by locking her up, appears to have won hearts and minds everywhere. In fairness, Emma Watson’s probably right that the picture adroitly sidesteps Belle being a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, a charge levelled at the animation, but the same can’t be said for the servants of the house, who go out of their way to fess up to their own culpability in the downfall of their Prince. They’re mere staff, after all; they’d be out on their ears, or worse, if they had protested his depravity. But the makers (the screenwriters are Stephen Chbosky, of the very good The Perks of Being a Wallflower – also starring Watson – and Evan Spiliotopoulos, graduating from numerous straight-to-DVD second tier Disney animations) have, in remoulding this tale for the ages, done their best to sand down the rough edges of more unappetising character traits.


Hence, the Prince cannot be wholly to blame for others’ fates, and he can’t be wholly to blame for his own either (it’s his dastardly father wot set him on his blighted course). It might have been more interesting if he was a complete bounder of his own volition and still turned into a decent chap by the end of it; it certainly says something about the Mouse House’s lack of faith in its audience’s ability to accept that someone can change (the entire thrust of the tale, whether interpreted positively or negatively) that they have to provide excuses for his villainy (this is Disney all over, though: having a Stormtrooper as a protagonist was a great idea, having him as a protagonist who never even did a single nasty thing, not so much).


Of course, I shouldn’t have been expecting miracles, or even minor surprises. If you smooth out the rough edges of a fairy tale, what you do tend to get are Disney versions of fairy tales, and they’re only going to become ever smoother as the gulf between an acceptable 18th century morality tale and an equivalent 21st century one widens. Flip the coin, however, and the path of Gaston from ridiculous, preening braggart into a murderous fanatic is entirely convincing, particularly in his aptitude for inciting the mob to a Frankensteinian fever pitch. That’s mostly down to Luke Evans, who’s one of the unqualified successes of this version.


Much less so Josh Gad as his sidekick LeFou, overplaying to within an inch of his life (anyone would think director Bill Condon said to him, “Okay, Josh, you love Gaston psychotically and you’re to underline every moment creepily rather than humorously”), and only really delivers when he has calmed down after turning sides. Indeed, while the would-be uproarious Gaston wants to be as visually versatile as the original (a fool’s errand in itself), its failure is mostly down to Gad overdoing it, rather than the functional choreography.


Ironically, given the translation of medium, the most interesting musical number is Lumière’s highly animated rendition of Be Our Guest, complete with Busby Berkley-style overhead shots. It helps to that Ewan McGregor is singing the majority of it, although none of the thesps are an outright bust in the yodelling department. McGregor, who’s having a bit of a minor renaissance himself in roles of late, comes off best of those cast as animated furniture; (Sir) Ian McKellen makes much more of an impression during the couple of minutes he has been returned to physical form than as a mantel clock, while, in a very rare miss, Stanley Tucci’s Maestro Cadenza falls completely flat. Audra McDonald’s Madame de Garderobe doesn’t really work for me either, but it’s Emma Thompson’s ‘orrible cocker-nee mugging as Mrs Potts that really did my head in. Quite disastrous, but no doubt devotees of Dick Van Dyke’s oeuvre will love her.


The leads are where the telling lives or dies, however, and both Watson and Dan Stevens are fine, but no more than that; they don’t enchant, but they’re inoffensively likeable. It has been suggested Watson was auto-tuned, which she may well have been, but for me the real problem is that the majority of the songs lack verve and sparkle. As lauded as the original’s tunes are, it says all it needs to that Tim Rice can come it provide seamless additions.  Stevens plays better during the first half, where the Beast is a more fearsome quantity and the motion capture work presents his monster obscured, in long shot or shadow; in the full light of day, the CGI never quite carries, particularly when his demeanour too is softened or goofed up and Stevens sounds more like the spoiled rich kid the Beast was.


Indeed, the perennial problem any given version cannot escape is that the Beast Belle falls for is reduced to a non-descript, blandly handsome guy in the final scene (not that Stevens doesn’t have plenty of personality in other roles, but he’s entirely unable to summon that in approximately a minute). It also, in the post-Shrek era of highlighting inner beauty and with the frontloaded knowledge of the beast’s origins in the Disney versions, rather shoots its would be themes in the foot; the purity of Belle’s love is undermined by the audience knowing she will hit the jackpot if she accepts the monster, so conforming entirely to the template of a classic Disney princess. It’s a long way from the raison d’être of the original story, as a scene setter for arranged marriages (the ugly old guy you thought you’d been co-opted into a life with would, in the fullness of time, be revealed for his true virtues as you came to be accept/submit to them).


On the plus side, Beauty and the Beast boasts fine art direction, magnificent sets, and decent post-converted 3D (there’s a particularly punchy, lobbed snowball at one point that gave me a much-needed jolt awake). The set-piece climax, with its leaping from tower to tower, is a touch too close to gravity-defying, Stephen Sommers–style acrobatics to be dramatically engaging, and there’s something a bit off that Belle, who was happy with a simple life (as long as it was a well-read one), and stated at one point that she was not a princess, should be ushered into a life of refurbished opulence. But then, they love all that, don’t they, Disney’s legion of little princesses?


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He's going to emasculate our nuclear deterrent and bring the whole damn country to its knees… because of his dreams.

Dreamscape (1984)
(SPOILERS) I wasn’t really au fait with movies’ box office performance until the end of the ‘80s, so I think I had an idea that Dennis Quaid (along with Jeff Bridges) was a much bigger star than he was, just on the basis of the procession of cool movies he showed up in (The Right Stuff, Enemy Mine, Innerspace, D.O.A.) The truth was, the public resisted all attempts to make him The Next Big Thing, not that his sly-grinned, cocky persona throughout the decade would lead you to believe his dogged lack of success had any adverse effect on his mood. Dreamscape was one of his early leading-man roles, and if it’s been largely forgotten, it also inherits a welcome cult status, not only through being pulpy and inventive on a fairly meagre budget, but by being pretty good to boot. It holds up.

The aliens are not coming, just so you know.

The X-Files 11.1: My Struggle III
(SPOILERS) Good grief. Have things become so terminal for Chris Carter that he has to retcon his own crap from the previous season, rather than the (what he perceived as) crap written by others? Carter, of course, infamously pretended the apocalyptic ending of Millennium Season Two never happened, upset by the path Glen Morgan and James Wong, left to their own devices, took with his baby. Their episode was one of the greats of that often-ho-hum series, so the comedown was all the unkinder as a result. In My Struggle III, at least, Carter’s rewriting something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Only, he replaces it with something that is even worse in the second.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I'm going to open an X-file on this bran muffin.

The X-Files 11.2: This
(SPOILERS) Glen Morgan returns with a really good idea, certainly one with much more potential than his homelessness tract Home Again in Season 10, but seems to give up on its eerier implications, and worse has to bash it round the head to fit the season’s “arc”. Nevertheless, he’s on very comfortable ground with the Mulder-Scully dynamic in This, who get to spend almost the entire episode in each other’s company and might be on the best form here since the show came back, give or take a Darin.

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water (2017)
(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once mo…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…