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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.

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