Thursday, March 23, 2017

Beauty and the Beast movie review.

Out of all the many titles within Disney's beloved Animation Classics lineup, few are beloved greater or as much as Beauty and the Beast. A timeless, beautiful, and modest love story that continues to age gracefully, its iconic music and imagery, as well as its powerful central romance has continued to earn it new fans, and high ranks among the "best of" lists of Disney enthusiasts.

In short, it should be no surprise that Disney decided to give it a live-action remake. From a business standpoint it makes sense, but creatively, it's a mixed bag. Beauty and the Beast has already become a done-to-death property, and compared to its decades-old counterparts like Cinderella and The Jungle Book, it's practically a "youngin" within its pantheon of classic Disney films, with the original still fresh within viewers' minds, and there being little to fix what was already perfect. But with all of that hanging over it, how exactly does this new take on the tale as old as time blossom?

Emma Watson plays Belle, an oddball young girl within her village ridiculed by her townsfolk thanks to her obsessions with reading and invention, all the while desiring to journey beyond her provincial life, and fending off proposals from the arrogant town hero Gaston (Luke Evans). When her father (Kevin Kline) goes missing, Belle sets off to find him, but soon realizes he's been seized by a cruel and hideous Beast (Dan Stevens), and takes his place as prisoner. Belle soon comes to know the many servants within the Beast's castle, including Ewan McGregor's Lumiere, Ian McKellan's Cogsworth, Emma Thompson's Mrs. Potts, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw's Plumette, and through a series of drastic and life-changing events, Belle and the Beast surprisingly grow closer to one another, and even blossom a romance that may finally break the curse inflicted upon the Beast.

The best way that I can really describe Bill Condon's new rendition on the animated classic is with the word "karaoke". It seems like a perfect description, as far as I'm concerned. Like any piece of karaoke, Beauty and the Beast feels built like a different, but ultimately less impressive take on its original piece, with the filmmakers and artists adding a number of new and novel spruces to the old material to make it distinct, while also showing how obviously inferior it is to the original. Largely the film simply rehashes or retools older plot beats, sometimes verbatim (even down to directly recreating camera angles), and for a film that's already struggling to justify its own existence, this level of recreation - while stirring some nice fan service and callbacks - further puts a hit on it.

However, as anyone would also feel free to admit, when done right, inferior karaoke can still be very delightful. While those gripes and more kept me from outright loving the film, I still found myself quite enchanted by the piece. The same charm and essence of the 1991 version is still there, and while the same basic outline is followed through to the nth degree, those select changes (though not all) still feel like welcome moments of novelty, even taking influence from the Broadway version, and from Jean Cocteau's surreal 1946 classic La Belle et la Bete. New additions like the Beast's fascination with books and their ability to transport (a turnaround from the previously illiterate older counterparts) does go a good way in giving the character an extra sense of humanity, and deepens the central romance.

Speaking of which, the romance still proves a highly successful one, anchoring the movie amidst all the glamorous visuals and side-antics. Emma Watson proves radiant and tailor-fit for Belle, perhaps pushing that Hermione Grainger bookworm and outcast persona a little too on the nose, but lifting the film with an earnest sense of passion, empathy, and infectious spirit. Dan Stevens successfully manages to recreate the same deeply conflicted, cruel, broken, and quickly learning nature of the original Beast, lending some great emotional gravitas to the proceedings, and while the decision to create the character through motion-capture over practical makeup is disappointing, the layers shown through the technology shows the great rewards in Stevens' casting.

The supporting players also show a great bit of reward in their selection, particularly the vocal cast behind the animated servants-turned-objects. Ewan McGregor's is the most obvious, donning his best French accent and having an utter ball as the charismatic candelabra Lumiere, particularly stealing the show during the massive "Be Our Guest" showstopper. Emma Thompson makes for a warm and chipper Angela Lansbury fill-in as Mrs. Potts, Ian McKellan a stuffy and orderly Cogsworth, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Audra McDonald providing solid support respectively as Plumette and opera singer-turned-wardrobe Miss Garderobe. Alas, the closest the voice cast gets to a weak link is Stanley Tucci, seemingly restrained and underused as enchanted harpsichord Cadenza, whose entire character is one of those rare superfluous changes that adds absolutely nothing to the film.

As far as live-action players go, there's really only three of note in that regard, but what they may lack in quantity, they make up with in quality and presence. Kevin Kline perhaps has it the worst of the three, at times appearing misused within the film, but his level of warmth, affection, and deep-rooted secrecy does provide the film with effective moments. For the unenviable boots of Gaston, we have Luke Evans absolutely owning the film every time he appears, a natural fit for Gaston's initially lovable stupidity and thick-headed arrogance, yet also showcasing an assured level of threat and hostility as he continues to get further and further away from what he wants. Josh Gad is there to lighten the proceedings as his personal companion and number one sycophant Lefou, earning some great laughs throughout, and because I would be remiss if I weren't to mention the controversy of Lefou becoming Disney's first gay character in film, I have to applaud Disney's tasteful treatment of the subject, showcasing it in subtle and reined in ways, and normalizing such a preference that doesn't overplay it for cheap laughs.

But those aren't the only successful translations from animation to physical. Just looking over the film from a visual standpoint, one can't compliment enough how well Condon manages to make the beautiful iconography of the original film pop, and beyond just translating the basic looks, also infuses the grotesque and haunting surreal quality embodied by the Cocteau version. Production Designer Sarah Greenwood particularly goes all out in bringing the darkly enchanting original sets to vivid and intimidating life, and even if the CGI is not always polished (and perhaps is abused), the characters still show a great sense of life and expression to compensate. Incidentally, don't bother seeing the film in 3D, as it adds absolutely nothing to the presentation of the film, and makes scenes taking place in already dark environments murkier because of it.

Oh, and one mustn't forget about songs, of which the original Beauty and the Beast is chock full of some of the most memorable earworms in cinema, thanks to musical genius Alan Menken, who himself returns for this very film. Menken's update and rearrangements of his original orchestral score and songs - featuring lyrics from his late collaborator and friend Howard Ashman - is impressive enough on its own, brought to life with talented new vocalists, but more notable this time out are new tunes which he co-wrote with his Aladdin collaborator Tim Rice. If they don't always hold a candle to the original songs that we know and love, they're still inspired little pieces of composition that earn their right in the sun, the Beasts' emotional soliloquy "Evermore" being far and away my favorite.

So in the end, what's my ultimate outlook on Beauty and the Beast? Do I listen to my head and logic and deem the film somewhat messy, caught between two worlds, and struggling to stand apart on its own? Or do I listen to my heart and nostalgia, embracing the enchantment and delightful whimsy of the film, and its faithful yet inventively tweaked presentation of a film I absolutely adore, while also seeing value in those differences? At this point, I think it goes without saying that the animated rendition is easily superior to this physical reinterpretation, which certainly and fairly opens up an argument over whether this film should exist at all.

In the end, I've decided to listen to both my head and my heart. I cannot ignore that the film is messy and in need of greater cohesion, and by all counts probably shouldn't be, but I also can't tear myself away from having so much fun with this film, and getting lost within its charming story and world. In a way I'm, as Cocteau put it, giving into that childlike sympathy, wrapped up in the magic of a simple, but lovely piece of storytelling as old as time. Even for a film with shortcomings like this, there's still so much power to transport you, and unleash that inner child and wonderment. I'll surely get exhausted with Disney's legion of physical cash cows sooner or later (Maybe The Lion King will be the one to break me), but today, I choose the path of enchantment...

***1/2 / *****

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