Friday, 21 April 2017

Movie Review: Beauty And The Beast (2017)



The 1991 version of Beauty And The Beast, to put it simply, is fucking perfect. Yet another classic film that took a modern reimagining for me to check out in the first place, I can scarcely recall a supposed ‘classic’ that made me fall head-over-heels in love as quickly as that film did. The animation, the music, the sharp characterization, the voice acting, the morals; it’s rare that I’ll ever define a film as being beyond improvement but, quite frankly, that’s how hard I fell in love with this thing. Yeah, I’m late to the party but I’m sure as hell not leaving in a hurry. Now, I would ordinarily get a bit anxious in the face of this because, well, remaking this film seems like a bad idea on the surface. However, given the quality standards of the recent string of Disney live-action remakes, I have at least some faith that this film will at least be entertaining. I’ve been making it a habit of talking about how most if not all of my expectations for this film’s releases have been proven categorically wrong… and now, it’s time to see the absolute nadir of that effect. This is Beauty And The Beast.

The plot: A tale as old as time, this story has been repeated so many times that recounting the narrative is almost pointless. Belle (Emma Watson), after her father (Kevin Kline) is imprisoned by the reclusive Beast (Dan Stevens), takes his place as the Beast’s captive. However, as the two grow closer, it seems that the curse that made the Beast what he is may finally be broken, much to the relief of his servants-turned-household-appliances. Unfortunately, jealous suitor Gaston (Luke Evans) is determined to have Belle as his wife at any cost.

Given the rather operatic and well-defined voice work of the 1991 version, I think it’d be a little unfair to directly compare this cast to that one. Not that I really need to, as most of the cast is perfectly capable of standing (or falling) on their own. Watson does adequately as the titular Beauty and, considering this is her first singing role on-screen, manages to do her musical numbers some justice. Stevens, on the other hand, doesn’t come out so well; it’s rather unsettling to think that his role as a sociopathic murderer in The Guest was more suave and charming than he is here. Kline is just okay as Belle’s father, Evans is a decent fit for the mascot of toxic masculinity that is Gaston and seems to be having fun in the process, and Josh Gad as LeFou is probably the most consistently entertaining cast member here. Ignoring the LGBT undertones of his character this time around, because it’s honestly not that noteworthy, his interjections during the songs and even Gaston’s faux-grandiose musings make for some truly funny moments. As for the voice acting of the servants, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen are pretty fun as Lumiere and Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts is probably the closest any of these actors get to besting their predecessors and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Lumiere’s love interest Plumette has some lovely chemistry with McGregor. I’d argue that this is more of a negative than a positive, but more on that later.

The recent string of Disney live-action remakes of their seminal classics have largely done away with the musical aspects of their respective originals. More often than not, the few familiar songs that spring up in these films is usually done as a means of lip service to the source material. This is markedly different however, as this is indeed a full-blown musical in much the same way the original film was. Honestly, there’s plenty of good and plenty of average in how that turns out on screen. Alongside the Menken/Ashman classics returning, we also have some new songs by Menken and Disney premier lyricist Tim Rice. Now, the new songs range from being just okay to pretty damn forgettable, but the new renditions are also pretty middle-of-the-road. The singing chops of the cast are mostly pretty good, even if they tend to lean more towards the acting side of musical performance which makes the singing a little off at points, and the numbers themselves are still good. Hell, Be Our Guest as sung by Ewan McGregor does that ideal film trick of fully transporting the viewer into the film’s world, and LeFou’s interjections during Gaston made for some of the funniest moments of the film.

Judging by the uproar concerning LeFou’s sexual subtext, it’s a safe bet to say that this is meant to be somewhat of a different take on the original story. Or, at least, this is attempting to be a different take. Aside from a slightly more multicultural cast this time around and a few bits of further characterization for both Gaston and LeFou, the most obvious enhancement here is how the Beast’s subjects have been written. Through an addition to the plot-commencing curse, the living castle now has grander stakes when it comes to breaking the curse: If they fail, they will not only remain objects forever but they will also lose their sentience. They are also given more connections to the outside world through relationships between the subjects inside the castle and the villagers nearby. As a result, the servants are now noticeably more proactive in making sure the main courtship works out and playing match-makers. This is honestly a pretty cool idea, a means of giving more agency to characters that are almost literally just part of the scenery. Unfortunately, how this ultimately manifests in the story is less than ideal, up to and including trying to lock Belle inside the castle when she tries to leave. They fail, of course, but that act on its own shows that this film’s attempts to potentially stave off the usual Stockholm Syndrome BS that the original unfairly keeps garnering doesn’t work nearly as well as the filmmakers think.

But even more so than that, what really makes this attempt to flesh out the supporting cast outright fail is because it’s being done at the expense of the titular Beauty and the Beast. Admittedly, Belle doesn’t really have much of an arc outside of the usual Disney Princess “I want more” credo but the Beast? More than anything else, the original was his story, his arc, his growth as a character. The original Beast was basically a secluded loner who, understandably given his circumstances, initially struggles to communicate with Belle without being aggressive but eventually wins her over with genuine heart and care. As a likewise mostly-secluded loner, I rather easily sympathize with this. In this film, however, he is reduced to being a brute that the love interest has to “fix”. There’s even a bit of throwaway narration at the start about how the prince taxed the villagers to make his castle as beautiful as possible, as if a remake of The Emperor’s New Clothes got mixed into the script. As such, what was before a story about redemption, love and the societal ill that is prejudice is now watered-down to the point where the main couple is now far less engaging than the relationship between Lumiere and Plumette. With an extra half-hour in the running time, they should have been able to accommodate both the old story and the new additions without losing anything, but apparently not. And as if this couldn’t get any more misguided, due to how the plot elements have been shuffled around (resulting in some weird disconnects during the musical numbers), the Beast here is actually more akin to a captor who makes a girl fall in love with him through imprisonment than the original ever was. Coming from two writers whose most popular works include the film version of Rent and The Huntsman: Winter’s War, it may not be surprising that they screwed up this badly but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

All in all, more so than any other remake/reimagining/etc that I’ve covered on this blog, the following oft-repeated statement applies: Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Through an attempt to improve on perceived failings in the 1991 classic, we are presented with a film that weakens its own core romance to the point of validating certain uncomfortable and usually erroneous claims about the toxicity of the original. It’s not enough that it doesn’t measure up to the original by any stretch; it also really doesn’t work in its own right. It’s worse than xXx: Return Of Xander Cage, as the feelings brought on by this film are far worse than mere apathy; the more I think back on this thing, the angrier I get. However, for as aggravating as this is, I can still say that there were moments where I was legitimately entertained; Middle School is nowhere near this enjoyable.

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