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

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

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…

And you people, you’re all astronauts... on some kind of star trek.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
(SPOILERS) Star Trek: First Contact (also known as plain First Contact, back when “Star Trek” in the title wasn’t necessarily a selling point to the great unwashed. Or should that be great washed?) is probably about as good as a ST:TNG movie could be, in as much as it actively rejects much of what made the TV series what it is: starchy, placid, smug, platitudinous exchanges about how evolved humanity has become in the 25th century. Yeah, there’s a fair bit of that here too, but it mainly recognises that what made the series good, when it was good, was dense, time travel plotting and Borg. Mostly Borg. Until Borg became, like any golden egg, overcooked. Oh, and there’s that other hallowed element of the seven seasons, the goddam holodeck, but the less said about that the better. Well, maybe a paragraph. First Contact is a solid movie, though, overcoming its inherent limitations to make it, by some distance, the best of the four big screen outings with Pic…

I fear I’ve snapped his Gregory.

Twin Peaks 3.14: We are like the Dreamer.
(SPOILERS) In an episode as consistently dazzling as this, piling incident upon incident and joining the dots to the extent it does, you almost begin to wonder if Lynch is making too much sense. There’s a notable upping of the pace in We are like the Dreamer, such that Chad’s apprehension is almost incidental, and if the convergence at Jack Rabbit’s Tower didn’t bring the FBI in with it, their alignment with Dougie Coop can be only just around the corner.

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

You've already met Judy.

Twin Peaks 3.15: There’s some fear in letting go.
Just two episodes ago, Big Ed was nursing a solitary late night cup-a-soup and looking as if nothing could ever come right. And even here, it seems as if, having finally been finally let off the leash by Nadine, he’ll be reduced to a coffee and cyanide. So the reparatory hand on his shoulder, signalling Norma is ready to be there with him for evermore, seems too good to be true. I’m wary that Lynch and Frost won’t just pull the rug from under them, and how long Nadine, who thanks to Dr Amp shows no fear in letting go, will remain in her golden, shovelled-up state.

I particularly enjoyed Wendy Robie’s delivery of “But I’ve been a SELFISH BITCH to you all these years”, and several of the characters here – Nadine, Big Ed, Hawk – are proving much more effective in this second wind of the series than they ever did first time round. Michael Horse has a great face for stoic rumination now. But not a horse face. 

Hawk’s phone conversations – I …

Don’t get tipsy. We can’t have you hiccoughing in the coffin.

The Avengers 4.2: The Murder Market
Tony Williamson’s first teleplay for the series picks up where Brian Clemens left off and then some, with murderous goings-on around marriage-making outfit Togetherness Inc (“Where there is always a happy ending”). Peter Graham Scott, in his first of four directing credits, sets out a winning stall where cartoonishness and stylisation are the order of the day. As is the essential absurdity of the English gentleman, with Steed’s impeccable credentials called on to illustrious effect not seen since The Charmers.

Cool. FaceTime without a phone.

Sense8 Season One
(SPOILERS) The Wachowskis do like their big ideas, but all too often their boldness and penchant for hyper-realism drowns out all subtlety. Their aspirations may rarely exceed their technical acumen, but regularly eclipse their narrative skills. And with J Michael Straczynski on board, whose Babylon 5 was marked out by ahead-of-its-time arc plotting but frequently abysmal dialogue, it’s no wonder Sense8 is as frequently clumsy in the telling as it is arresting in terms of spectacle.

I frequently had the feeling that Sense8 was playing into their less self-aware critical faculties, the ones that produced The Matrix Reloaded rave rather than the beautifully modulated Cloud Atlas. Sense8 looks more like the latter on paper: interconnecting lives and storylines meshing to imbue a greater meaning. The truth is, however, their series possesses the slenderest of central plotlines. It’s there for the siblings to hang a collection of cool ideas, set pieces, themes and fascina…

How dare you shush a shushing!

Home (2015)
(SPOILERS) Every so often, DreamWorks Animation offer a surprise, or they at least attempt to buck their usual formulaic approach. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised with how sharp and witty it was, fuelled by a plot that didn’t yield to dumbing down, and Rise of the Guardians, for all that its failings, at least tried something different. When such impulses lead to commercial disappointment, it only encourages the studio to play things ever safer, be that with more Madagascars or Croods. Somewhere in Home is the germ of a decent Douglas Adams knock-off, but it would rather settle on cheap morals, trite messages about friendship and acceptance and a succession of fluffy dance anthems: an exercise in thoroughly varnished vacuity.

Those dance anthems come (mostly) courtesy of songstress Rhianna, who also voices teenager Tip, and I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg fully appreciated what a box office boon it would be to have her on board. The effect is cumulatively nauseating though, l…

This is hell, and I’m going to give you the guided tour.

Lock Up (1989)
Sylvester Stallone’s career was entering its first period of significant decline when Lock Up was flushed out at the tail end of his most celebrated decade. His resumé since Rocky includes a fair selection of flops, but he was never far from a return to the ring. Added to that, his star power had been considerably buoyed by a second major franchise in the form of John Rambo. For a significant chunk of the ‘80s he was unbeatable, and it’s this cachet (and foreign receipts) that has enable him to maintained his wattage through subsequent periods of severe drought. Lock Up came the same year as another Stallone prison flick, Tango & Cash, in which the actor discovered both his funny guy chops (resulting in an ill-advised but mercifully brief lurch in to full-blown comedy) and made a late stage bid to get in on the buddy cop movie formula (perhaps ego prevented him trying it before?) The difference between the two is vast. One is a funny, over-the-top, self-consciously bo…