Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Beauty & the Beast?

I chose to see Beauty and the Beast right away, at the 7 PM showing on Thursday night, because I didn't want to see anyone's comments (even general comments) before I saw the movie. And given how divided my own opinions ended up being, I think that was a good decision.

My general comments? It wasn't a bad movie and in many ways it was good, but it was nowhere near as good of an animated to live action adaptation as Cinderella was. The rest of my comments are so scattered and various that I haven't been able to sit down to write them all out until now; I'm going to just go ahead and put them into two lists, the positives and the negatives (all in my opinion as usual rather than as a review, of course).

The Positives

- In general, this was a visually good-looking film. Lots of color and shapes and designs came in along with the greater emphasis on a specific historical setting (18th century) than the animated film had. Though it might sound strange, this film simultaneously had a more historical and fantastical look and feel than the animated original. That made for a very specific and recognizable visual look. I quickly realized why Mrs. Potts and Lumiere and the rest all had new designs: the 1980's animated colors and shapes just wouldn't have made sense in even a semi-historical live action setting.

- As with Cinderella, though taken to a further degree here, I like that because this is a specifically fantasy story in a mostly historical setting, the filmmakers didn't use the historical setting as an excuse not to have some diverse casting in the characters. I was happy to see Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette) in 18th century aristocratic clothing again, for instance.

- Most of the songs were carried out well in terms of all of the film elements that have to come together: singing, music, choreography, sets, cinematography. "The Mob Song" was probably my favorite because I've always liked it in the original and it's also a song that lends itself well to live action. And I'll take this moment to appreciate Audra McDonald's vocal skills.

- The new theme of leadership was an interesting addition to the story. This film brought up the question of what you do with the influence over people that you have. Gaston led badly. Belle tried to lead well, even if most people didn't accept her efforts. The Beast led badly, then regretted it. Then, in turn, we also have the question of who you allow to influence you. LeFou followed Gaston for a while, regretting this more and more until he finally decided to go his own way. The inhabitants of the castle were passive (essentially they're described like bystanders) toward the Beast's "downfall" and came to regret this. And so on.

- Lumiere was a stand-out good performance for me. I forgot that he was voiced by Ewan McGregor until almost the end, which shows that he was able to embody the character completely apart from himself or other roles that he's had. I couldn't picture Luke Evans as Gaston, but immediately I thought he performed the character very well (there were some things about the script of Gaston's character that I didn't like, but I'll get to that later). Similarly, with the Beast, even though I'd had trouble picturing Dan Stevens, he played his character well--as far as what the script allowed this character to be.

- Although I love the original film, I do sometimes have a problem with Belle's negative comments (which remain unresolved at the end of the film) toward small towns: they're general comments that aren't targeted at specific traits (she complains, for instance, that the baker, who's just a man trying to earn a living, makes and sells bread every day--that's kind of petty of her). So I appreciate that the film tried to emphasize not just that Belle wanted a more exciting life but also that the townspeople were negative toward her. Not just that she didn't feel like she fit in but that people were mean toward her. Not that they're just too busy working to talk to someone who seems to do nothing but walk around and read all day but that they don't like her and they want her to know that they don't like her.

- Similarly, this film tried to make more of Belle's reading. I like the new place where she goes to get books; it's much more fitting to the 18th century than the book shop she visits in the original. I also like that there is more emphasis on her friendship with the chaplain (bookseller in the original), with whom she can have conversations. And reading gave her a conversation starting place with the Beast. I wish they hadn't used Romeo and Juliet, but I guess the number of generally recognizable and also appropriate to the story books and such that were around in the 18th century is small. And Lancelot and Guinevere? Okay, it's a love story, but it's also a weird love affair whose mention, for me, added little to the movie. I almost would have preferred Belle and the Beast to just talk about books in general than to mention titles just for the sake of mentioning titles--but the fact that the conversations are there is nice.

The Negatives

- For this being the live action version of an animated film, I hate to mention that there were times when I forgot I was watching a live action movie. In particular, of course, is the "Be Our Guest" sequence. While you could say that it was a visual feast, I didn't connect with watching it and felt like maybe my eyes were overwhelmed. Then I realized that the types of things I was seeing were the types of things I praise in animated films (saying that they're what you have the opportunity to do and to do well in animation), and for that same reason they didn't make sense or fit in with live action. I understand that this film was in an awkward position because half the characters did need to be animated (CG, that is) even if the film was live action. But you still need to have a separate visual look from the animated film. Take The Jungle Book, for instance. All of those CG animals, but they gave them not only different designs but also different ways of moving and speaking and behaving as compared with the animated film. Beauty and the Beast forgot to do that with its CG elements.

- Most everyone sang well. But even though I am not a musical person, Emma Watson's singing voice stood out to me as sounding flat and produced in comparison to everyone else's voices. If everyone's voices had been in the same style, then that would have been fine. But to have one voice (especially the voice of the main character) fall at a different level of quality kind of ruined her songs for me. Her performance was fine when she was just acting. But she didn't blow me away enough to justify the fact that her singing abilities didn't seem quite up to par with the rest of the cast. And a bad casting choice for the main character puts the whole film on shaky ground.

- I also felt like the script left out Belle's sass. She's not just a confident person; she's outspoken and witty. She doesn't politely tell Gaston that she's not going to marry him; she overdoes it by saying pointedly and sarcastically, "You're just too good for me." So okay, if the choice was to make Belle less possibly rude and make her more complacently comfortable in her disagreements, less quick to yell at others, then that would be fine. But she was singing the same songs that were written for quick-tempered Belle. After quietly closing the door on Gaston, the live action Belle still goes out and starts singing about "his little wife" while topping her hair with the cloth--even though she doesn't seem as upset about the event. The characterization is inconsistent.

- I found that this was the case at many other points in the film. For instance, they made some interesting choices with LeFou by having him question his following of Gaston. But then they still had him sing "Gaston" in the tavern, which made absolutely no sense--and actually didn't fit in very well with this Gaston, either. This Gaston is more vain as a side note than as a main point; he's willing to put aside his vanity for other aims, but then he goes along with this song as if he is that intentionally one-dimensional character from the original. It's as if someone wrote a script to rework Beauty and the Beast and then someone came along and said, wait, you have to put these songs in there, and so they just shoved them back in without re-reworking everything else to make them make sense again. As good as these songs are, I think it was a bad idea to include them in this movie. Songs are so specific to character that you have to keep everything the same in order to keep the same songs--and even the small changes that this film made were enough that many of the songs no longer fit.

- While Cinderella and The Jungle Book both walked in with a specific agenda of what they wanted to achieve with their films, the remake of Beauty and the Beast felt disjointed, as if they weren't sure what they were bringing. They tried to add something new with some flashbacks (Beast's mother dying, and the place where Belle's mother died), but both felt too brief and disconnected to present events to add anything to the story except for unanswered questions.

- What happened to the Beast being a beast? He's supposed to have a wild temper, quick to anger and always yelling at Belle (who characteristically yells back and therefore removes the power from his yelling). They made him more gentle, a quiet person who has long ago come to terms with his fate. He's more like the Beast in the original tale--but with all the same events and circumstances of Disney's version. You can make him more gentle if you also change all of the surrounding elements that would make that choice fit in, but the filmmakers didn't do that. They just mellowed him out to make it easier for audiences to see him and Belle falling in love (and avoid people complaining unnecessarily about Stockholm syndrome), but kept in his anger toward Maurice and initially (that is, when she first arrives at the castle) toward Belle. Again, this felt like character inconsistency.

- The main themes in the animated film are redemption and the concept that inner and outside beauty are separate. This film completely botched up both themes--or at least lost them all amid too many disjointed elements. They messed with the Beast's redemption by trying to briefly blame his negative side on his father; the reality is, he needs to have full responsibility for his actions in order to regret them and then move forward without them. Otherwise, the Beast becomes a passive character and the focus moves back to just Belle (as it is in the original tale) and the concept of beauty. But the film downplayed everyone's looks. They only said that Belle was beautiful in passing; they didn't emphasize it. Similar with Gaston. And they don't keep emphasizing that the Beast is in the form of a beast. So everyone already appears at face value. Belle is kind and smart. Gaston is shallow and self-centered. The Beast is regretful. This leaves us with no chance to go on the journey to see the person behind the face. The point is supposed to be that Gaston is good-looking but no good on the inside, the Beast is in a hideous physical form but chooses to be good, and Belle is beautiful on the outside but also has the ability to see who other people are on the inside (she isn't fooled by either Gaston's or the Beast's looks) thereby making her beautiful on the inside as well as the outside. They lost that theme by trying not to talk about people's looks too much.

- This film had an interesting theme of fate. It's right after Belle sings that she wants adventure that we see Maurice diverted toward the castle. He isn't just caught late at night, taking one path over another because he's lost. He knows the way, but fate sent lightning to knock over a tree to block his way, forcing him to go to the castle. It's like fate said to Belle, "You want adventure? Okay, well, here it is. This'll be a tricky one but if you're being honest by saying that, then you just might be up to the task here." So I liked that part. But the other half of it is bothering me. In this film, we learn that the enchantress put a spell so that everyone in the surrounding area would forget about the castle and not be able to get in to it. This provides a practical explanation for why no one knows that there is a castle there or knows the story of what happened there. But it also doesn't seem to go along with the Beast's punishment and his chance to break the spell. If no one can enter the castle, then how can he fall in love and earn love in return? Is he supposed to fall in love with Mrs. Potts or Lumiere? (This spell seems to clearly refer to romantic love, and all of the servants in the castle are ineligible, one way or another--most of them are already in relationships.) It's like the enchantress laughed in his face, saying, "You can only break the spell by falling in love. But I've enchanted the castle so that no one can get in. Good luck, you fool." I called it fate that allowed Belle into the castle. I suppose you could say that it was the enchantress, but then what does that mean? She was looking around waiting to find someone to let in that she thought would fit the bill? And unless Belle wasn't the first person allowed in, then this takes agency away from the Beast. This makes it so that he's just waiting around for someone to break the spell, rather than taking the opportunity of Belle's presence by trying to be nice to her.

I realize now that my list of negatives is longer than my list of positives. I've just been rambling because I had so much to say that it was difficult to put it all in one blog post. I guess my main point is that Disney has in the past made good live action remakes of animated films, but despite their original Beauty and the Beast being such a near perfect film, I walked away from the live action version a little disillusioned with it all. It was nice to watch while it lasted, and I'm sure there will be a generation of people who grow up watching and enjoying this film. But it didn't really offer me anything that stayed with me or anything that I really valued. Despite the title, I had trouble finding Beauty and the Beast in this film.

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