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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

Doctor, eh? You’re not in the best of shape yourself, though, are you?

Doctor Who  Season 26 – Worst to Best
I’m not a big Seventh Doctor fan. For me, Doctor Who pretty much ended with Season 23 (and not because it was awful: see here). Yes, there have been a few nu-Who reprieves (mostly notably Matt Smith’s first season), but the McCoy era flaunted an abundance of sins, from a lead who wasn’t up to snuff, to a script-editor messaging his social conscience wrapped in a breeze block (or bilge bag), to production values that made any given earlier era look absurdly lavish in comparison. And then there was the “masterplan” (which at least lends Season 24 a rather innocuous and relatively inoffensive quality by contrast).

Nevertheless, on the occasions I do return to the era, I’m always minded to give it a fair shake. And while that resolve inevitably crumbles within minutes, under the duress of cold harsh reality, it has, at times, led to a positive reappraisal (The Happiness Patrol, and, to an extent, perhaps unfathomably, Time and the Rani). So we’ll see ho…