Monday, 20 March 2017

200th Review: Beauty and the Beast

An adaptation of the Disney fairy tale about a monstrous-looking prince and a young woman who fall in love.

You could say that the notion of turning beloved characters and stories into brands was invented by Walt Disney. He built his empire on the image of Mickey Mouse (1928) but Disney really engrossed the brand concept in 1955, with the launch of Disneyland, where children and adults alike could see familiar characters in completely different context, which made them new. This new live action movie is a remake of the 1991 Disney classic, which itself was an adaptation of a French tale as old as time. This version is the latest successful adaptation of Disney's animated films after Cinderella, Maleficent, The Jungle Book and Pete's Dragon

This remake is very faithful to the original, there are few new songs, extra scenes and few story elements that have been changed and shifted around to fit modern days; but for the most part, it maintains the original feels. This film will be a rush of nostalgia for viewers over a certain age and magical enough in its own right to convert newcomers.

At the beginning when Belle walks out of her house and wanders through the village singing "Belle", that lovely song that mingles optimism with a yearning for something more, the shots and beats are all in place, the spirit is there, you can see within fifteen seconds that Emma Watson has the perfect soul to bring your dream of Belle to life. In fact, Emma Watson has a natural strength and sweetness, that fit perfectly with the role and she also meets the role's musical demands. She never gives in to extravagant emotion or retreats into depression, but maintains a kind of even-tempered dignified romantic solitude. 

The supporting cast is, in general, amazing. All impressively digitally rendered, this cast almost steals the show from Belle and the Beast. Dan Stevens as the Beast has a voice close to Darth Vader trying to channel his inner Hugh Grant. If the Beast CGI is not always perfect  - and this is my main and most likely only downfall for this film - it is good enough to prevent any major distractions, even in the centre piece ballroom dance. Though, it is hard to shake the feeling that the technology might have been up to the challenge in a couple of year's time. 

Now, the songs. A huge benefit for this adaptation is that it gets to revisit Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's songs. Once again, "Be Our Guest" is a highlight, but there is also joy in seeing Belle and Gaston's numbers given new life. Moreover, a good animated fairy tale is, of course, more than just a movie. it is a whole universe. The form has been invented by Disney eighty years ago with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs  (1937). A film I still think has never been surpassed and when you watch something as transporting as this film or Bambi, Toy Story, Hercules, The Little Mermaid, Mulan or Beauty and the Beast; every gesture, background ad choreographed flourish, from the facial expressions to drip-drop of water, everything flows together with a poetic unity. That is the catchy miracle of great animation. 

The 1991 Beauty and the Beast is a film of big, memorable set-pieces, and the challenge here was to outdo them. Plus, of the additions made to the plot, most are minor twists centred on Belle, increasing the independence she already had in the original compared to some other Disney heroines. Crafting inventions, hatching escape plans. Belle is also given a little more backstory, which adds to the foundation of her relationship with the Beast. 

Finally, I keep comparing Beauty and the Beast to the animated version which raises a question: is that what we are suggested to be doing? Or should the film simply stand on its own? The movie wants to have it both ways, but then, that is the contradictory philosophy of reboot culture: we are drawn in to see the old thing... but we want it to be new. 

Overall, you have seen this film before but when it is redone with such warmth and craft it is impossible no to be won over anew. Though, animation, at its finest, is already a glorious imitation of life. To me, it is still not clear why the audiences need an imitation of the imitation.

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