Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Dan Stevens and Emma Watson faithfully recreate almost shot-by-shot a much better cartoon

Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Emma Watson (Belle), Dan Stevens (The Beast), Luke Evans (Gaston), Kevin Kline (Maurice), Josh Gad (LeFou), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Audra McDonald (Madame de Garderobe), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette), Hattie Morahan (Agathe)

Beauty and the Beast was released at the perfect time. The generation who grew up watching the original could now take their children – or revisit the fond memories with their parents. It was a chance for everyone to wallow in sentimental nostalgia. Disney knew its market would be people who wanted something as close as possible to what they remembered: they certainly delivered.

Surely you know the story by now? But in case you’ve been living under a rock for your entire life: Belle (Emma Watson) is the beautiful but bookish village girl who dreams of a something more than this provincial life. When her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) is imprisoned by a horrific Beast, Belle volunteers to take his place and stays in the castle. The Beast and all his servants are enchanted and only true love can break the spell – will Belle and the Beast fall in love?

I would ask why Disney feels the need to make what are effectively shot-by-shot remakes of their animated classics, but the fact this raked in almost a billion dollars at the box office kinda answers that question. But make no mistake, creatively this is karaoke: a few small flourishes have been thrown in, but effectively it’s a faithful recreation of a film that was already pretty much perfect to begin with. In fact, watching it, the only real emotion I felt was a desire to watch the “real” thing again. Damningly, twice my wife and I stopped to look up the equivalent scenes from the original on YouTube: in every case they were better.

That’s the big problem. Of all these remakes, only The Jungle Book was a genuine reimagining of the original. This one follows Cinderella and hews as close as possible to the film you’ve already seen. The plot is identical. The song and dance sequences are the same. The characterisations are the same. Hell, half the line readings are the same. It’s a film that is so dependent on people’s affection for the original that it’s terrified of offering anything too different from it. In which case – why not just watch the original? Would you rather look at a poster or the actual Mona Lisa?

Condon has thrown in some new pieces here and there to get an extra 30 minutes of action. One decent invention does involve the spell also causing the villagers to forget the castle exists, which is neat. The others add less. Belle has been turned into as much of an inventor as her father and, in one particularly bizarre sequence, invents the washing machine. There is a rather confused sequence involving a magic book which allows the Beast to go anywhere in the world (the witch clearly left a plethora of magic devices behind to entertain the Beast) – raising the question of why he needs that enchanted mirror, since he can apparently physically travel through both space and time with his Tardis-book. LeFou is subtly reimagined as gay – but this is very quietly done so as not to damage the film’s box-office potential in some markets.

There is a rather clumsily done storyline around Belle’s mother dying of plague when she was a baby, which also adds nothing. The film may possibly be trying to construct some kind of clunky commonality between the Beast and Belle with their parental traumas, but a dead mother with a rose fetish shares little with the stereotypical Cold Abusive Aristocrat father the Beast has – and anyway, they’re already giving them plenty of common ground through the good stuff they’ve lifted straight from the original film. Nothing else new really stands out.

In fact, the film is so studiously faithful, you get annoyed when it deviates from the original – particularly as it invariably does scenes less well. The final battle between Gaston and the Beast suffers horribly, with the emotional narrative of the fight thoroughly muddled, in contrast with the original’s clear and efficient storytelling. In the original, the Beast despairs and refuses to save himself from Gaston’s attack until he sees Belle. Here, he’s sort of defending himself and sort of not, and Belle is given some action nonsense, and Gaston’s death is turned from a clean narrative (one treacherous thrust hits home, then in sadistically going for the second he falls to his death) into a strange sequence where he stands and brutally shoots at the Beast repeatedly until the stonework beneath him randomly collapses and send him plummeting to his doom.

None of this, however, compares to the butchering of the moment when Belle discovers the library. In the original this is an endearingly sweet moment, with the Beast overcome with excitement at giving Belle a gift she really wants. The audience shares in his delight, and is charmed by his touching anxiety that she will like it, just as they share in her wonder at the discovery. It’s a major moment in the growth of their relationship. Here it’s thrown away – the Beast shows her the library in a fit of irritation at her pedestrian Shakespeare tastes. The film gives all the time and emotional weight to the tedious “magic book” sequence, where they travel to the “Paris of my childhood” and discover that, yup, Belle’s mum died of plague. Well that was both depressing and uninteresting… 

Anyway - take a look at those two library scenes...

The acting is pretty good. Emma Watson does a decent job, particularly considering the pressure on her. She performs the songs prettily, although they don’t soar the way they did when performed by someone with the vocal power of Paige O’Hara. Her Belle is thoughtful but has a level of defiance and independence that’s been stepped up from the original. Dan Steven’s Beast is much more of a prince under a ghastly shell – unlike the original he’s literate, can dance and is well spoken (which makes his moments of animalism and his soup eating failure stick out all the more). The rest of the cast are fine – Ewan McGregor is as flamboyant as you’d expect, Emma Thompson sings the song very well, Kevin Kline makes a lot of Maurice. However for each of them, there are moments when you remember fondly that the animators invested the originals with more emotion.

The one member of the cast who does stand out is Luke Evans. How is the guy not a star yet? Sure the swaggering braggart Gaston might be the best part in the whole film, but Evans nails it with all the energy and egotism you would expect. His scenes are the best in the film by far, and he’s the only one who manages to do something a little different with his role.

Of course it looks fabulous, but it feels somehow a little bit empty. All the things that move you are done (mostly better) in the original – in fact, a major part of why they move you is the memory of the original. The acting is pretty good and it’s well filmed and made – the design is terrific. But honestly, with the original out there what’s the point? Why would you watch this rather than the other one? It’s not as moving, it’s not as exciting, it’s not as funny, it’s not as charming. All it does is to try and recreate the original as closely as possible. You can stage Hamlet thousands of times and each production would be different, but Disney can’t stage Beauty and the Beast twice without replicating it.

If you want it to exactly match your memories, without being quite as good, it’s the film for you. If you want a Disney live-action film that feels like something original, watch The Jungle Book.

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