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Beauty and the Remake

April 13, 2017

It’s a tale as old as time… and a movie as old as 1991.

Ahh, Beauty and the Beast.  A tale as old as time… and a movie that sailed into our hearts in the more recent times of 1991.

The original animated movie came as Disney was rocketing skyward once more in what’s come to be known as the Disney Renaissance (culminating with my beloved The Lion King).  It ended up being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the first and only time an animated movie has been thusly nominated (and likely to remain the only time with the subsequent creation of the Best Animated Feature category).  The ballroom scene remains one of the most stunning moments in animation history.  It is firmly entrenched as a Disney Classic.

So how does this classic tale and animated glory fare in its live-action remake?

(Caution!  Spoilers ahead!)

Unfortunately, overall I came away unimpressed.

To be clear, it isn’t terrible.  The overarching storyline remains pretty much unchanged vis-à-vis the animated version, and so the fact that the original was a solid enough movie helps carry this remake along.  They didn’t mess anything up enough to turn it into a poor movie, but on the flip side I didn’t find there wasn’t much that really elevates the story either, and enough of the changes unfortunately manage to subvert some of the better scenes and moments of the original.

I do get the dilemma the producers must have found themselves in:  if we’re making a live-action version, what’s our raison-d’être?  It’s not an easy place to start from, especially given the success and classicness of the original.  And so, wisely I say, they chose to follow the path of the (well done) Broadway musical and take the basic story and build upon it.

The question then is, what and where to add.  And if you add to the story elements, what are those additions trying to say?

I will pause here to note and try to be fully fair here in saying that because I know the original so well, any deviations may feel much more awkward and off-putting simply because they break the familiarity of the timing and patterns I’ve grown used to.  So I’m willing to give them some leeway knowing I cannot be fully unbiased here.

That said, I think the biggest flaw in this remake remains in the extending of scenes and music numbers, specifically in ways that mess up the flow and feel of those scenes or numbers.  At best, they extend the piece by adding in a few extra bars of music for additional scenery or spectacle.  At worse, they shoehorn in whole extra scenes that fully and awkwardly disrupt what had been building.  In trying to build something more, they instead undermine the success of the original sequences.

The most egregious example of this comes when the Beast dies and Belle professes her love for him.  In what should be the emotional climax of the film, we are instead “treated” to what feels like a 10 minute sequence of each and every enchanted object we’d come to know turning into plain old objects.  It becomes not only predictably repetitive and also fails to evoke sympathy it was going for, it also, much worse, kills the continuity of sadness we ought to feel at the point at the death of the Beast.  If we’ve come to love the Beast as much as Belle during the movie, and if we’ve come to root for them, then that is where our pathos should dwell and remain focused.  It’s a failure of storytelling quality.

  • I really loved how they tweaked the traditional Disney logo opening sequence, incorporating the Beast’s castle to slide effortlessly from the familiar music and fireworks into the story proper.  Brilliantly done.
  • I’m guessing the new narrator is Agathe?  (checks Wikipedia – yep!)  Makes some sense, but I do miss David Ogden Stiers’s narration.
  • To that end, I’m a bit uncertain about Agathe’s expanded role in the film.  On the one paw, I kinda like that she’s the one who causes the resurrection and transformation of the Beast at the end of the movie, it’s a nice touch that not only gets around the fact that the last petal had fallen (and why would it bring him back to life?), but also that she put him into the situation, so she sees it through to the end (and kinda makes her whole appearance at the beginning less random).  On the other paw, all those intervening years – why is she sticking around?  Being mistreated by the townsfolk?  (As an enchantress, couldn’t she whisk herself anywhere when she needs to?)  It also brings up further questions of why was she so invested in this one prince?  From random happenstance it now instead asks “What’s her back story here?  Why is she so fixated on this one person?”
  • Having Belle borrow books from the church and pastor was a great change.  I had wondered how a small, illiterate town could support a whole bookseller/store.  Much nicer, plus, the smallness of the collection is a nice contrast to what Belle gains access to in the Beast’s library.
  • “Oh look Philippe, there’s some water and some hay for you…”  Why is there water and hay?  The beast has no horses!
  • That Maurice would sit down and just start eating someone else’s food felt way off for me (doubly especially for Maurice, whom I would expect to be more courteous than the typical villager).
  • No problem with him taking the rose though, and that being the reason for Beast’s irrational imprisonment.  Seems he’s gotten a bit touchy about the subject of roses…
  • Overall I was a neutral on most of the designs for Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs Potts, etc.
  • “Be our Guest” as a number would always be tough to do in a live action movie, as the switch to the over the top fantastical production required is harder to pull off than you could in an animated movie with a complete change in style (see also the “I Can’t Wait To Be King” sequence in The Lion King for a similar example).  Which means that while this was the boldest musical number in the original, “Gaston” ends up having much more punch here.
  • Plus the added ‘joke’ of Belle not being able to eat anything during “Be Our Guest” because it keeps being pulled away from her… weird.  Left me wondering “did she get to eat anything at all in the end?”
  • Going back to “Gaston” for a moment… there’s something quite interesting about having LeFou going around and dispensing money to everyone as the song goes on.  Changes Gaston’s role/prominence in the town quite a bit, from someone everyone authentically likes to someone who’s kinda tolerated and the ensemble’s enthusiasm isn’t so genuine.  I like this… though then it gets more awkward when the townsfolk choose to storm the Beast’s castle at Gaston’s insistence.  I’d think they’d be less likely to follow him so readily?
  • In many ways, LeFou got the biggest ‘upgrade’ of all the characters in the movie.  Or perhaps it was just I was more on the lookout for it given the pre-release hoopla about it.  Either way, he was elevated from mere sidekick to a more involved character in the film, with his own arc, desires, and conflicts.  Plus he was acted very very well.  I approve heartily.
  • His turncoat moment was unfortunately muddied.  We see him expressing doubts and coming to be torn by his morality and Gaston’s actions, but at the castle he only fully turns after Gaston leaves him under the harpsichord, which could imply that LeFou only changed sides because Gaston ‘betrayed’ him.  And then we don’t get a nice representation of a moment of choice, he just suddenly chooses to save Mrs Potts.
  • The Beast, by comparison, is where they dropped the biggest ball.  The one thing they could have added to the film that would have had the greatest resonance was in developing the Beast.  From reading interviews, they had a desire to give him more backstory, but “He was a jerk because his father made him a jerk” (which was literally what is said) is not all that interesting.  Something more like he lost his mother and thus, in sorrow, drowned himself in pleasure and power to hide his pain, would’ve left more room for a path back, growth, and re-learning to be a decent human being.  And could’ve even given a reason for his voracious book reading (one of escape).
  • Belle’s backstory additions also feel a bit flat to me.  I was never left wondering in the original movie “why is she so different from everyone else?” – which was the intent noted in that same interview I mentioned above.  The magic atlas scene (besides the obvious power loophole of an atlas that can take you anywhere, even in time, and you can bring back things from it…I mean, that’s some item, I can think of several dozen ways that could be abused, and especially an angry beast could use/abuse) scene, coupled with her conversation with Maurice at the end imploring him to help her as she presents him with the glass rose, I feel didn’t add much to the story.
  • Plus the imploring scene between Belle and Maurice mucks up the cadence/pacing of the “Mob Song” sequence.
  • Why was Belle quoting literary works to the Beast?  I don’t remember, was she reading him a bedtime story?  (Which would be very cute!)
  • “Was that a joke?  You’re joking now?”  I liked that exchange.
  • Poor Cogsworth!  He’s turned from a fierce loyalist and the first to say “if it’s a fight they want, we’ll be ready for them! ” to being a cowardly clock.  Who poops out his cogs in fright once.  And who’s further reduced to a clichéd joke about having an unpleasant wife once turned back into a human.
  • The new songs.  Let’s put it this way… during the Beast’s big number, I actually began guessing what the upcoming lyrics would be.  Based on the rhyming scheme.  Not a sign of strength in the lyrical department.
  • And they changed lyrics at the end of “Gaston”?? Did… did they just explain the joke?  Really?  Why?  Did anyone not get the joke in the first place?
  • “Isn’t this, amazing, it’s my favourite part because, you’ll see…”  But, who’ll see?  There’s nobody next to you in this version Belle… are you talking to yourself now?
  • Why would the tree in the forest that fell before Maurice later right itself and again become whole?

So yes, overall unimpressed.  Not that there isn’t potential in a live action version – my recollections of the Broadway show is that it came off quite well, and I found it as strong as the animated film.  This one, not so much.  The novelty of seeing a “true to life” version is indeed novel and kind of fun, but the “story” additions were not meaty enough and muddled things a bit, and the other insertions often detracted from the overall power of both the spectacle and the narrative flow.  I can’t really rate this, given how closely tied it is with the original, but if you enjoyed the animated version it is worth a watch.

This does not, however, make me feel in any way confident for the announced “live action” remake of  Lion King…  which, as previously noted, is one of my beloved…

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