Friday, March 17, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017) An Embarrassingly Long Review

               Beauty and the Beast (1991 Disney) has had an essential role in my life, having been released during a very formative time of my childhood. I went to see it when it was first in the theater, on a field trip with my sixth grade class when I was 11, and was immediately in love with this version of the fairy tale I had previously read in books. Belle became my heroine…my ultimate role model. So although I was extremely excited a few years ago when Disney announced their live action Beauty and the Beast, I was also nervous.
                Over the last month or so, as more trailers came out from the film, teasers, snippets of information, I admit that I grew more and more anxious. Some of the details I was appreciating and liking…others not so much. I wasn’t identifying with Emma Watson’s proactive, feminist “Belle the Inventor.” Dan Stevens’ CGI Beast looked extremely unrealistic in quite a few trailers. And Lumiere’s accent was just atrocious.
                My unease grew and grew. Although I was loving (and buying) all of the merchandise that was being released with images from the original film, I intentionally bought very little with the new cast and characters, feeling suspicious that when I went to see the movie, my reaction might vary from mild disappointment to outright anger and hurt at the mistreatment of my favorite movie of all time.
                Well, I am delighted to say that my reaction to the film was neither. Although my initial concerns for the movie were in some ways validated, these concerns were outshone by what was excellently done. As my husband and I left the theater after our first viewing this morning, Tom gave the film an A+ rating. I gave it an A-. I often have a cautious response when I first see a movie…I don’t want to give a knee-jerk response and overestimate my fondness for it. (I don’t want to be that person who goes to see every movie and leaves saying “oh my gosh A+++ best movie EVER) We went to lunch, and then came back for a second viewing at 1:00. By the time that viewing was over, I amended my letter grade to a solid A. 

                Although nothing will ever exceed the original in my heart, a big part of the reason why is because of the emotional pull of nostalgia. The “flaws” and inconsistencies and narratives left unexplained in the 1991 film don’t phase me a bit, as they are just part of the wonderful tapestry of my adoration for it. However, I feel like the new Beauty and the Beast film is not only made more adult because of its longer length, added sophistication and narrative explanation, but also intentionally acknowledges the older/adult audience who grew up with the original animated film. I’ll try to explain more of what I mean later.
                Okay, at this point I’m going to start digging in in more detail, so please be forewarned, I may include some spoilers here. If you don’t want to be spoiled at all, perhaps wait to read this. I will try to avoid any major huge giant spoilers though, but your opinion of what is a big spoiler may vary from mine, so…reader beware.

                First, let me get my biggest disappointments out of the way. Although the prologue is done beautifully, truly, I couldn’t help but miss the stained glass. It was such a perfect way to set up the fairy tale feeling of the original film, and it could have been so stunningly done in live action special effects. However, it’s hard to dwell on this for too long, because I can see what they were trying to do with the new version as well. It sets up beautifully what an arrogant and selfish character the Prince was before his curse, and seeing him in such a tangible way instead of through a stained glass “illustration” helps this greatly. 

                Another disappointment to me was some of the missing lines. Some of them I missed less than others, and this is entirely due to my own favorite parts of the original animated film. For instance, my award for “most-missed line” is not even a contest: although the scene where Beast prepares for the ball plays out quite similarly to the animated version, we lost one of my favorite moments when Lumiere says “oh you look so…so….” and Beast finishes “….Stupid.” This line could have easily still been delivered, and I so wish they had done so. 

                My disappointment with the costuming of this film also held true. Although Belle’s village dress is practical and smart and well-done, I couldn’t help but wish Emma had allowed her Belle to be a bit more beautified, especially in her yellow gown ensemble. Yes, I realize the irony of what I’m wishing for here…I do understand that part of the reason for this choice was to point out that “beauty” is not important to Belle, and those of us who want it in her appearance are focusing on the wrong thing, when the very message of the movie is to see past appearances. But darn it…all of us cannot help but compare this film to the live action Cinderella of a couple years ago, and Lily James managed to look so lovely without being too ostentatious. It would have been possible. They could have done better.

                (And I really think those look like Toms she’s wearing with her village gown in the scene where she’s teaching the young girl to read. Which was quite distracting and impossible to unsee once seen. You’re welcome.) 

               Finally, I was disappointed in Belle. Sort of.
                Here’s the thing. I do think Emma Watson made a good Beauty to her Beast. I do think she made an inspirational character for young women, and perhaps younger girls who will grow up with this film will view her with the same nostalgia with which I view Paige O’Hara’s Belle. But she just wasn’t my Belle. Paige’s Belle was a dreamer. I’ve heard reviews that criticized her for not having much industry or motivation beyond her books, but I loved that about her. She hadn’t yet really articulated exactly what she wanted…she just knew she wanted “more than this Provincial life.” And truth be told, I related to that so much as an eleven-year-old weirdo bookworm introvert with an overactive fantasy life. Emma’s Belle, by contrast, is an inventor…an intelligent woman who uses her education in practical ways. She strikes me as a doer, instead of a dreamer….practical instead of a lover of aesthetic and beauty. As I said, this still makes her absolutely a good role model, but…not my Belle.

                 Okay, those are basically the major things I didn’t like so much about the film. Now to the good stuff.
                One big thing I truly loved about this film was the fact that they decided to play it as not only a respectful interpretation and elaboration of the original animated version, but also an opportunity to embrace the fairy tale’s history. I’m talking, specifically, of two additions: First, Belle asks her father to bring her a rose back from the faire he’s attending, and the Beast only attacks and imprisons him when he plucks a rose from the garden as he’s leaving. For those who may not be familiar with the original fairy tale, this is an important part of the story that was missing from the original animated film. And it sets up a more sympathetic view of Beast from his first interaction with Belle. She and Maurice quip about how ridiculous Beast’s response was to his simply taking a flower, and Beast responds with something like “I was cursed for a rose. I just put him in prison.” 

                 I also appreciated the small but obvious nod to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Cocteau’s black and white film (1946) was a huge inspiration on the original animated movie, and has inspired countless fantasy films and designers since. If you haven’t seen it, run, don’t walk, to your library to rent a copy. Anyway, the lights/torch holders to either side of the gorgeous front door, with their human arm design, are a direct homage to that film. And I smiled appreciatively when I saw that. It was like director Condon was bowing respectfully to those of us who love the fairy tale in all its forms.        

                Throughout this movie, they took time to explain or acknowledge moments that were considered “flaws” or “plot holes” in the original animated movie. I don’t want to give you all of the examples of this, but for instance, the Beast’s 11-year-old age when he was cursed is “fixed,” the reason why the villagers don’t remember there’s a freaking castle in the forest right next to them is “fixed,” Chip having about 20 brothers is “fixed.” As I said earlier, I appreciate the original including all its plot holes and “flaws,” but I did also greatly admire how seamlessly the film filled all of these holes. Some of which I was impressed they took the time to acknowledge. I’ll give you two examples.
                In the animated film, one of the most memorable scenes is the “Be Our Guest” musical number. One thing that always amused me, and I know some people noticed but I haven’t seen it discussed much online, was that Belle goes into that dinner saying that she’s hungry, and yet she only barely gets a chance to dip her finger in two food items during the musical number. Suffice it to say that the new movie embraces that idea, and actively makes it a comic aspect of the scene. I loved how they did this. 

                As a second example, some people online have speculated at the end of the movie that it seemed like Maurice and Mrs. Potts were perhaps starting a romance in the last scene. In the new movie, Mrs. Potts has a husband, but in the celebration scene at the end, she gives a nod to Maurice. To me, that was an acknowledgement both of respect for how he raised his daughter, and a bit of a literal nod to the audience. No romance for them in this version. Nicely done. 

                The music in this movie was just wonderful. The new songs at first seemed mostly lovely but unmemorable, but then I found myself humming them when I went home. I am buying the soundtrack. But for me, there was absolutely one song that far and away outshone all the other new additions, and this is (those of you who have seen it can likely guess) “Evermore.” This is a song sung by Dan Stevens when he sends Belle from the castle to rescue her father. The first time we watched the movie today, I was awed and moved by this song and shed some tears. The second time, my face was drenched with tears. It was the most emotional part of the entire movie for me, especially with how sympathetically Stevens plays his Beast. 

                My next stand-out aspect of this film version was the castle itself. Movie reviewer Grace Randolph pointed out in an early teaser view of the castle that it was designed to resemble the whirling, spiraling petals of a rose. I totally missed that until she pointed it out, but I think she’s absolutely right. Although my favorite rendition of Beast’s castle in a movie is still the Christophe Gans French film from 2014, this is definitely my second favorite. The odd spiraling staircases, bridges leading to nowhere, formal gardens frosted with snow where roses still grow…it was utterly, beautifully done. And as someone who strongly feels that Beast’s castle is (and should be) a major character of the story in its own right, I loved it. 

                 Mind you, just like in the animated film when the curse is lifted and the castle transforms from gargoyles to cherubs, I was also sad to see the gargoyles transform to knights as the curse ended in this film too. Why must we lose all the magic? Why must Beast turn into a human again at all? But this is a peeve I have with almost every single version of the story, and I’m used to disappointment there. Don’t get me started.
                Clearly I could go on and on forever. (And really, I have, so let me try to end this soon). There are so many more aspects of this movie that I could talk about, but I tried to hit at least some of the major observations I had. I mentioned above that this version of the movie seemed to be made for those of us who grew up with the animated movie, sort of like how Harry Potter’s books grew with his readers as they got older, offering more mature themes and language as the kids who grew up with them aged. When I went to see the movie for a second time, I was struck very strongly with emotion when I was listening to Belle’s words in the new song “Days in the Sun.”

How in the midst of all this sorrow
Can so much hope and love endure
I was innocent and certain
Now I'm wiser but unsure

I can't go back into my childhood

                I suddenly realized fully that this movie isn’t trying to be my childhood film. It is not trying to replace its nostalgia and magic. The Belle of this film is discovering the complications that come with the “much more than this provincial life” for which she wished. She is learning that life is complicated. That people are flawed, but can still be loved. That we can still find joy even in the midst of the dark parts of life.
                Beauty and the Beast is a moment of magic, joy, and fairy tale in the midst of what is currently a very dark and complicated world. We can enjoy the one without ignoring the reality of the other. I highly encourage you to go and enjoy and appreciate this sophisticated and adult homage to wonder, imagination, and the true beauty that lies within. 

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