Monday, March 27, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

2/4

Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor

Rated PG for Some Action Violence, Peril and Frightening Images

Ordinarily I'd ask why, but it has long since become clear that Hollywood has stopped taking any sort of pride in its work.  Instead, they pour excessive amounts of money into brand names and make money overseas.  Still, would it have been too much to ask to not revamp something that's already become definitive?

From Disney's perspective, it makes sense.  They own the rights to the story, the songs and the characters, the original "Beauty and the Beast" was a hit with audiences and critics, and was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (an award it should have won, by the way).  Live-action adaptations of Disney animated classics are big successes nowadays.  Add in one of the most popular starlets out there and you've got a recipe for a sure fire hit.  But just because it's well marketed and a new version of a classic story doesn't mean it's worth your time.  Occasionally, remakes improve upon the original.  This is not one of those times.

The story, for those of you who don't know (are there such people?) is simple.  Belle (Watson) is a young girl living in a small French town, where she spends her days inventing things and turning down a marriage proposal from the town's hunk, Gaston (Evans).  Gaston wants her for her beauty, but she can barely stand to look at him, much less marrying the cretin.  One day her father goes to the market, but a downed tree causes him to take a detour, where he ends up at a cursed castle.  There, a Beast (Stevens) thinks him a thief and locks him away for the rest of his life.  Belle goes after him and agrees to become the Beast's prisoner in exchange for her father's freedom.  Of course, they fall in love, which is a good thing for the Beast and his servants (who have become objects around the castle), since the Beast finding mutual love is what will lift the curse.  But Gaston won't go away and intends to have Belle as his bride...or else.

The key to a successful remake is to find the sweet spot between honoring the original and carving out a new identity that justifies its existence.  Bill Condon, who is a good filmmaker, can't manage this admittedly difficult task.  As a result, 99% of the film feels redundant and a pale echo of the original.  The only thing you can really do while watching this movie is wait for the scene you know from the original until the end credits roll.

The cast ranges from effective to adequate, with one exception.  Emma Watson is a good actress and continues to grow with each new role she takes, but despite the support of Paige O'Hara (who voiced Belle in the original film) and Susan Egan (who originated the role on Broadway), she can't fill the shoes left by her predecessors.  Part of it is due to the script, which is filled from top to bottom with odd choices and awkward moments, but she lacks the presence and the singing ability to pull it off.  Dan Stevens, an underrated actor if there ever was one, is surprisingly good as the Beast, playing him with pathos and passion.  His Beast isn't as good as the original, but it's more of a new interpretation, and he manages to save as much of his butchered character as he can.  Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellan are amusing as Lumiere and Cogsworth, capturing much of the quirky interplay from the original characters.  Emma Thompson does what she can, but like everyone else, she seems like an imposter.  The exception is Luke Evans, who is just awful.  Never an actor of great range, Evans is a woeful choice for Gaston.  He's not fatuous or arrogant enough, and certainly not at all menacing.  The film turns into a bad "SNL" skit whenever he shows up.  He does have a nice set of pipes though, much to my surprise.

Condon was adamant that they bring back the songs from the original.  He even brought back Alan Menken to rearrange the songs, and brought in Tim Rice (who co-wrote the songs from "The Lion King") to write three new ones (the original lyricist, Howard Ashman, died a few months before the release of the original).  But to distance them from the original, adds little idiosyncrasies, which has the unfortunate result of sounding like someone sat on a cat.  All the songs from the original are definitive, so why would you want to ruin them by making the audience think of their 7 year old sister trying to imitate Celine Dion?

Perhaps the biggest mistake is to make it live action.  There is a certain freedom in animation that is not possible when filming with real actors and sets.  The lighting and the camera are not bound by the laws of physics.  It is possible to show darkness and menace while still making everything clear to the viewer.  Cameras can swoop and swish all around the characters in ways that not even the most innovative cinematographer can imagine.  This applies to the characters as well.  Expressions and physical characteristics can be exaggerated to convey the correct emotion.  Take for example the scene where Belle first sees the Beast.  As gorgeous as Emma Watson's peepers are, they can't hold a candle to the ever-widening eyes of the animated Belle as she first gazes upon the monster.  Speaking of the Beast, in the animated film he was shot in darkness and menace, but we still saw the color of his fur.  That's not the case here, where he blends into the background.  If you're going to turn an animated film into a live action film, you must find a substitute for this, and Bill Condon doesn't (let's hope no one has the gall to turn "Spirited Away" into a live-action film).

The good news is that there is some new stuff as well.  The backstories of Belle and the Beast are fleshed out with material that, while not original, interrupts the monotony.  Then there's the homosexuality of Lefou (Gad), Gaston's sycophant.  His sexual orientation caused a lot of controversy, including alterations for foreign nations and a ban from a drive-in theater in Alabama.  As Josh Gad put it, it was way overblown.  Frankly, I wouldn't have recognized it had it not been released to the media.  The only possible gay moments are found in any guy comedy or a square dance.  Shocking.

Look, this movie is a beloved story and making big money at the box office.  But please, don't waste your time.  Those of you who see this have no right to complain about there not being any original movies these days.

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