Thursday, March 23, 2017


How does Disney's new Beauty and the Beast shape up?

So, I went to see Disney's new Beauty and the Beast movie. Full disclosure: Disney's 1991 cartoon version, along with the dreamy 1946 Jean Cocteau black-and-white La Belle et la Bete, inspired me to write my own alternative take on the tale.

(Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, due out March 6, 2018. But you knew that!)

When it was first announced that Disney was doing a live-action remake, my first reaction was: why? They'd gotten everything so right the first time.

The obvious answer is the studio wants to wrest another megazillion bucks in profits out of tried-and-true properties to which the studio already owns the rights. (See other recent live-action remakes like Cinderella and Maleficent.)

But, the more pertinent question is: have they built a better Beast?

Belle and Gaston: no way, lout
Lavish, enormously-budgeted, gorgeously-produced, and directed by Bill Condon as a color-saturated movie musical extravaganza, the new version is much longer than the cartoon.

Additions have been made to the original script by Linda Woolverton (who does not get a credit this time around) by screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos.

There's some new backstory about the "Beauty" character, Belle (Emma Watson), her clockmaker father (Kevin Kline), and her absent mother. The pivotal moment when an insulted enchantress casts a spell to turn the spoiled, frivolous young prince into the fearsome Beast (Dan Stevens) is acted out as a prologue. And three new songs have been added to the Oscar-winning musical score by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman (new lyrics written by Tim Rice).

Otherwise, the story hews pretty closely to the (Disney) original. Belle is considered "odd" in her French country village because she reads books, dreams of adventure, and is in no hurry to get married — especially not to Gaston (Luke Evans), the narcissistic lout who means to make her his wife because "she's as pretty as me."

Beast and Belle: the way to a girl's heart
When her father is taken prisoner by a horrible Beast in a castle hidden in the woods, Belle demands to take her father's place. She doesn't know the fearsome Beast is a prince under a witch's curse. All his servants have been turned into household objects who befriend Belle, knowing that only a girl who falls in love with Beast and earns his love in return can break the curse on them all.

But there's a ticking clock: an enchanted rose preserved under a (ahem) bell jar. If Beast hasn't found love by the time the last petal drops, he and his people will be trapped in the curse for the rest of their lives.

Lumiere: candle power

Fractious with each other at first, Belle and Beast start to bond — especially when he invites her to visit his vast library. Meanwhile, the hateful Gaston makes plans to storm the castle, kill the beast, and "rescue" the girl.

There are many charming and funny interactions between Belle and the enchanted objects. I loved the staging of the song, "Be Our Guest," led by the irrepressible master-of-ceremonies, Lumiere, the candelabra (voice and motion-capture movements by Ewan McGregor), a show-stopping production number with its homages to Busby Berkeley-style overhead shots, and clever lyrics. ("No one's gloomy or complaining/When the flatware's entertaining").

I also found it rather touching toward the end when the enchanted objects gradually begin to lose the power to move and speak — ie: their human qualities —the more petals the rose drops.

Stevens aroar: don't mess with this Beast!
And this is a great-looking Beast, with his impressively long and upswept horns. (Although his mane looks a bit overly-groomed for my taste.) He's at his beastly best when he comes roaring out of the castle to fight off a pack of ravening wolves who attack Belle in the woods.

But it's hard to tell how much Stevens (late of Downton Abbey and currently on Legion) was able to contribute to the role. I experienced technical difficulties in some of his scenes with Belle. Long and medium shots, when the actors share the same physical space (Stevens in costume), are convincing enough. But at other times, Stevens doesn't get to use his own face to express the character's emotions because a decision was made to do Beast's face as a CGI effect.

Beast and Belle in the ballroom: sumptuous
Granted, it's a pretty amazing effect. But there are moments when Beast's expressions don't look as natural as Belle's when they are in close-up together. We sense a thin layer of physical and emotional disconnect between them — a problem when their relationship is meant to be the heart of the movie — so their romance never quite swept me up in its luscious grip, as it should have.

Another problem is that way to much of the story is devoted to the preening Gaston and his evil machinations. Don't get me wrong; I've loved Luke Evans ever since Tamara Drewe. But Gaston is a one-note character who sucks up too much precious screen time away from Belle and Beast — who could really use it to establish more rapport.

The showdown with Gaston in the finale is also a bit disappointing, with Beast leaping about like Spiderman from one castle spire to the next. Since when did his transformation into a beast come with web-slinging capabilities?

Still this is a sumptuous rendering of the classic fairy tale. But the essential question of why someone who falls in love with the noble Beast would be pleased when he suddenly turns into the standard-issue "handsome prince" in the end remains unresolved. What's so happily-ever-after about that?

This is the one thing that's always bugged me about this fairy tale. And it's an issue I'll be grappling with in my book!

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