Beauty & the Beast

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Two things from Hollywood’s past came to my mind while watching Disney’s new version of their own 1991 cartoon feature. The first was Gus Van Sant’s shot for shot remake of Psycho and the second was Jeff Goldblum’s famous quote from Jurassic Park about how Hammond’s team were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should. Beauty & the Beast is by far the studio’s most faithful adaptation of one of the films from their animated back catalogue yet. It doesn’t tell alternate versions of the story like Maleficent or Alice in Wonderland or even add more depth to the central character like Cinderella. Instead it treats the original film as a blueprint and lays amazing sets, pretty CGI and a starry cast over the top. The question has to be does this make the film better and I’m afraid the answer is no which arguably renders the entire project entirely pointless. 

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This isn’t to say Beauty & the Beast isn’t an enjoyable film, it’s like Let Me In, the English language version of Let the Right One In; enough of what was great about the first film has survived to make the new one good too. First off the design of the movie is stunning. The set of Belle’s provincial village feels like a throwback to an older style of film making in that it seems they built the whole thing for real rather than having it heavily supplemented by visual effects and you really get a sense of how small it is which totally works with the story. The castle on the other hand is magnificently huge and clearly enhanced with computer trickery but invisibility so. The film looks lavish and expensive, which with a budget of $160 million it was (Cinderella cost $95 million) but compared to Batman Vs Superman’s wasted $250 million price tag it is relatively modest. The film has made a three and a half million in its first three days so I think their investment is safe. The ‘Be Our Guest’ and the ballroom scenes are also beautifully staged and choreographed (although the defending the castle sequence was not a touch on the cartoon version). 

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Emma Watson is good enough in the role of Belle although I think she was better in The Bling Ring, Perks of Being a Wallflower and the later Harry Potters. Dan Stevens is strong as her fleecy faced leading man too, bringing a surprising amount of humour through his motion capture performance. In fact all of the actors are strong from Emma Thompson and Ian McKellen in roles as animated as there were in the original movie to Luke Evans and Kevin Kline in the flesh. For me the stand outs were Josh Gad as LeFou and Ewan McGregor as Lumière both bringing energy and charisma to their parts. Fortunately McGregor didn’t have to jump around like a Subutteo player, they’ve given the character legs this time.

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There are differences in the film beyond the candlestick having legs. Gaston is an even badder man this time showing he is as prepared to kill humans as he is beasts and Maurice is a refined clock maker not a bumbling inventor meaning he isn’t saved at any point by a magical tea cup riding a wood chopping machine of his own creation. There is a new headteacher character in the story too but I don’t know where he is the headteacher of as everyone in the village seems to be completely illiterate. The slighted enchantress who kicks the whole castle curse off hangs around past the prologue as well which is brave as you’d imagine a lot of those largely innocent but still enchanted servants might be quite cross at her. There are also some additional songs courtesy of original composer Alan Menken but I’m not sure they are catchy enough to get Oscar nominated, as every single thing he wrote once was.

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As you may have already heard LaFou is openly gay now too. The homosexual moment when it comes is quick and narratively insignificant. I can’t help but feel that if director Bill Condon hadn’t mention this amendment in interviews Russia and Malaysia wouldn’t have got their restrictive little knickers in a twist over it. I feel the gay gazelle couple in Zootropolis was a greater challenge to outdated kid’s film conventions. Still, Disney could have easily cut the blink and you’d miss it scene out for those prejudiced countries but they haven’t which is a step in the right direction even if it’s only a small one.

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The Ripley Factor:
Emma Watson, an ardent feminist, has spoken about how Belle is an empowered woman and she absolutely is. The difference here to heroines like Cinderella is that she always was. Even in the cartoon she was smart, emotionally strong and courageous. The problem in the story is that she is held captive by a man. This doesn’t seem to be a predatory thing, the beast was originally going to imprison an older man not a beautiful young woman after all. In fact imagine if this whole thing had played out in the same way with Belle’s father instead, now that really would have been progressive. 

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Key to the independence of Belle is the scene in which she escapes only to voluntarily return to the castle after the beast is injured saving her from the wolves. From this point it seemed to me that she was there by choice. Certainly this version makes it clear that she could escape pretty much any time she wants to. After his initial grumpiness the beast is charming company and he does have that incredible library so it’s no wonder that she might want to hang around. She’s got all those servants looking after her too and she knows they’re in a fix and wants to help them. I was almost surprised when the beast said he was letting her go at the end. I thought we’d dealt with that already. It is possible I had projected this interpretation onto the film but she does retain her sense of agency even if her state of freedom is questionable. There is also a nice moment that echoes a line spoken by Moana in Disney’s last animated feature where she states categorically that she is NOT a princess and this seems to stay true until the end of the film. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler but that’s another issue with this film; you essentially already know everything single thing that is going to happen.)

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Is this one for the kids?
Things are scarier in live action than they are in cartoons so the wolves may alarm younger audience members. That said this film is not as frightening as last year’s Jungle Book that had giant apes and vicious tigers jumping around the place.

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I think Beauty & the Beast has achieved everything it wanted to. It is a spectacular interpretation of the animated film but interestingly much of it felt smaller than before. This is one of the limits of live action; it is slightly more bound by what might happen in real life. For the same reason a lot of the enchanted furniture relies of pareidolia rather than having actual faces. In the end though it made me want to watch the original again rather than having another viewing of this and that probably wasn’t their intention.

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