Saturday, March 18, 2017

Beauty and the Beast Review

Last year I released my list of my favorite films from Walt Disney Animation Studios and topping that list was the 1991 classic "Beauty and the Beast." That's a movie that I watched a lot as a child and have always loved. While many Disney movies admittedly carry a lot of nostalgia, I can promise you that "Beauty and the Beast" has a lot more than nostalgia going for it. In fact, it gained new meaning for me when I saw it as an adult because I was able to discover the deep meanings and themes to the movie that hit me right to the core. In fact, many times when I watch it I become an emotional wreck due to how powerful it is and that doesn't happen often for me. Everything about the movie is simply perfect with what it sets out to do and say. Now that Disney is on a mission to remake all of their old classics, "Beauty and the Beast" is the latest in what is going to be a long line of Disney movies to get the live-action treatment. Given how beloved "Beauty and the Beast" is to me, you would think I would be a lot more nervous about this given my relationship with remakes, but you might be surprised to know that this is a movie I've been excited for every step of the way for reasons that we will discuss here and I'm happy to announce that it did not disappoint.

Before we dive into the movie, we need to dive into the controversy. Because we live in 2017, a year in which many people seem look for new ways to be offended. This is actually the fourth major movie this year that has been buzzing in controversy that I think have been unwarranted. "Split" was accused of putting mental illness in a bad light. "A Dog's Purpose" was accused of on-set animal abuse. "The Great Wall" was accused of being a white savior movie. All three controversies were pretty bogus. And now we have everyone throwing a fit over some comments that director Bill Condon made that "Beauty and the Beast" has Disney's first ever "exclusively gay moment." Mr. Condon probably learned the hard way that many people are super sensitive about their Disney movies and that you should probably be careful about comments you make about the movie. There's a lot of people that don't like the idea of Disney pushing a gay agenda which will cause parents to have to talk to their kids about why two men love each other and if that is normal or not. These are very legitimate concerns that have people passionately arguing both sides that range from boycotts of the film to high praise. I braced myself for this and was ready to make a passionate stance depending on what happened. And guess what? Yeah. It's nothing. Like, literally.

Do you want to know exactly what this "exclusively gay moment" is? If not, feel free to skip this paragraph. Because I'm going to tell you. Minor spoilers coming your way. In the end fight, there is a moment where three men approach our wardrobe lady and she dresses them up like girls, like in the animated movie. Two of them scream and run away. A third one looks in the mirror, smiles and walks away happy. At the final ball, this man and LeFou share a dance that is shown on screen for a grand total of like two seconds. That's literally it. LeFou makes some comments throughout implying that he has affection for Gaston, but nothing that I would define as an "exclusively gay moment." These are very subtle moments that are so subtle that your kids aren't even going to notice. For better or for worse, there will be no explaining that you will have to do. If you want to get mad at this, well, just know that Disney has subtle moments like this in just about every movie they've done. There's a lot of Disney moments that are a whole heck of a lot worse than our two second dance in this movie. If Disney does something major like giving Elsa a girlfriend in "Frozen 2," then let's talk. But right now there's nothing really to talk about. Go see the movie and take your kids.

Shall we talk about the movie now? In case you've been living in outer space for the last 80 years or so, you should know that Disney is very good at making money. They always have been. When they find something that makes them money, they keep doing that until it stops working. When they do something wrong, they are very good at learning from their mistakes and keep on trying to improve until they find success. Basically the movie "Meet the Robinsons" is analogous for Disney themselves. In 2010 they discovered that they can make live-action remakes of their classics and make a lot of money off of it. In fact, Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" that I reference made over $300 million in the U.S. and over $1 billion worldwide. "Light bulb!" That's exactly what they studios execs probably said when that happened. Since "Alice in Wonderland," we've had several studios join in on this party, but Disney themselves have now made "Maleficent," "Cinderella," "The Jungle Book," "Alice Through the Looking Glass" and "Pete's Dragon." Many more of these are on the horizon and I can now say I'm excited for this future because Disney is getting better. They're learning from previous mistakes in those movies and learning how to make a proper remake.

"Alice in Wonderland" may have made a lot of money, but the movie was a disaster. "Maleficent" tried to take "Sleeping Beauty" and twist it in a clever way. Nice idea, but lousy execution that turned into an awful movie. With "Cinderella" they decided to make a movie that was faithful to the source material while enhancing a few story elements. Boom! They struck gold with that idea. I had a few minor issues with "Cinderella," but I was overall pleased with this result and this formula. Last year with "The Jungle Book" and "Pete's Dragon" they stayed with that formula. Enhance and update some story elements that may have not made a whole lot of sense, but overall stick with what worked. Both movies were great. "Alice Through the Looking Glass" was an atrocious mess, but we can chalk that up to a minor bump in the road and move on with life. "Beauty and the Beast" follows the same successful formula that made "The Jungle Book" and "Pete's Dragon" work. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. This is an extremely faithful adaptation that plays the exact same notes as the original while taking the opportunity to enhance a few elements of the movie or explain certain things that were left unexplained. They take an 85 minute movie and turn it into a 130 minute movie and it works.

As we were going through this movie, I really appreciated the fact that they took the time to fill in the gaps. This is not a fault of the original, really. It's a fairy tale that was meant to be short, yet powerful. Many of Disney's animated movies are less than 90 minutes. Again, that's something that worked for Disney, so they kept doing it. But if you are going to make a live-action movie, 85 minutes isn't going to cut it. So they take the time to add more exposition about the castle, the kingdom and this curse that was placed on the Beast and many of his fellow castle mates. I liked that. When we finally have Belle and Beast in the castle together, they take more time to develop the relationship. Belle has some realistic reservations about the whole situation, but as time goes on, they are able to develop an honest friendship that stems from them realizing that they have several common interests. With the animated movie, this relationship moves really fast and for the sake of that movie, that worked. This time there's more development with the characters and a few minor things are changed in or to get us from Point A to Point B that work really well. And we have a villain in Gaston whose motivations are mostly the same, but partially enhanced to give us a very well rounded story.

All I wanted from this movie is for the magic of the original to return. Because of Disney's decision to remain faithful to the story, that's exactly what I got. This is a tale as old as time that is as timeless as can be. The Beast's character arc is one that many of us go through. We begin our journey as prideful human beings and the end goal is hopefully for us to learn how to truly love, which requires a lot of humility and patience. It's a character arc that is beautiful. Added onto that is the lack of confidence that we may feel that we're never going to find affection from another human being, a female in the case of the Beast, because of our physical appearance. Then we have the character of Belle who is very down to Earth and respectful of everyone. She is headstrong, fearless and progressive. She abhors many cultural traditions such as treating women unfairly or not seeing them as equals to men. She doesn't like the fact that the Beast has made her a prisoner, but at the same time she is able to look past his fierce, repulsive appearance and see him for what he really is, which is something that many aren't able to do, not even the Beast himself at times. Not only are these two relatable a romantic level, but these principles can be applied to a lot of aspects of life.

Emma Watson and Dan Stevens both do an excellent job at encapsulated these two characters. Sure, they don't quite compare to Paige O'Hara and Robby Benson from the original movie, but in fairness not many people would be able to. Yet Emma Watson and Dan Stevens do a pretty dang good job at capturing the magic these two characters. Yes, it's true that I had a hard time seeing Belle in the movie instead of Emma Watson. She doesn't disappear into this role. But I love Emma Watson as a person. I love what she stands for. I love how down to Earth she is. I love her acting. While she doesn't necessarily look a whole lot like Belle or sound a whole lot like Paige O'Hara, the character of Belle and the real life person of Emma Watson have a lot of similarities in personality, so because of that I buy her as this character and I enjoyed seeing her on screen. We'll talk about her singing in a second, but she certainly fit the character. Speaking of characters, though, completely stealing this show was Luke Evans as Gaston. Gaston is one of the best Disney villains with how manipulative he is and how despicable he is. Luke Evans knocked it out of the park. He is a manipulative and atrocious human being with motivations that are completely believable.

Holding the glue together are all of our side characters. There's a lot of them and I enjoyed all of them. Ewan McGregor was hilarious as Lumiere. Ian McKellen did a great job balancing him out as Cogsworth. Gugu Mbatha-Raw does a great job as Lumiere's love interest who has been turned into a feather duster. Then we have Emma Thompson who does a great job stepping into the shoes of Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts and her boy Chip is very quick and witty, which I loved. We also have Stanley Tucci playing a new piece of furniture named Maestro Cadenza, who I believe is a harpsichord. He was a great addition to our cast of characters. By the way, all the furniture looks fantastic. It translated a lot better into live-action than I was expecting. In fact, while we're at it, all of the sets in the movie are gorgeous. Our castle especially is breathtaking. All the visual effects and cinematography to go along with the set design is cinematic perfection when it comes to the technical aspects of the movie. Back to the characters, on Gaston's side of things, Josh Gad is perfect as LeFou. In addition to Gad's perfect comedic timing that he brings to this role, LeFou is given more of a conscience in this movie. He's not just the dumb idiot blindly following Gaston. He has a lot of depth and emotion to him that I wasn't expecting. Major props to Gad and the writing team there.

Finally we need to talk about this music. Because the other thing that Disney did here in addition to being faithful to the story and to the characters is keeping this a musical, which is something they didn't do with "Cinderella" and "The Jungle Book." Thus more experimentation. And it worked. I really loved the music. I was going to do a in depth segment at the end of this review discussing each song, old and new, but I have decided against that. I listened to the soundtrack early in the week and really liked it. It took me a second to get used to new voices singing the songs I love, but after several listens it really grew on me, thus when I saw the movie, it connected seamlessly. In fact, there were a few songs that I was nervous about that when I saw them in context of the movie ended up being a lot better. No, the songs don't compare to the original animated film and they aren't Broadway level of perfection. Yes, Emma Watson's voice is enhanced a bit and you can tell at certain moments. No, Luke Evans doesn't have as deep of a voice as Gaston. But I didn't find any of it distracting. The songs weren't great and phenomenal, but they were good enough for me to give the music a pass. I enjoy the soundtrack and I'm going to go back and listen to it many times in the future.

This sparks a completely different discussion that we could go on for hours debating. But I will try to keep it brief. Is "good enough" an acceptable standard for our Disney musicals? Is it OK to hire big name actors and actresses and give them a few months of vocal training so that they can pull off the music while slightly enhancing their voices in post-production in order to give the music a pass? Or should we bring back voice dubbing, which is something Disney themselves used to do all the time? The problem there is finding voice doubles that not only can sing really well, but sound like the actor. If I can tell that the talking voice and the singing voice are two different voices, that takes me out of the movie. Thus it requires a lot of extra casting effort to make it work. Another option is to simply hire trained musicians via Broadway or elsewhere for these roles, but is it OK to sacrifice star power and rely on the brand name recognition alone to do this? I can guarantee you that casting Emma Watson as Belle helped a lot in building anticipation. If we hired someone who was a smaller name that could sing better, the movie may have sold less tickets. Would that have been worth it? I don't necessarily have answers to all of these questions. But they are interesting discussion points.

Overall, this was a longer review, but I felt like it was necessary in this case. "Beauty and the Beast" is a movie that I hold very close to my heart and this was my opportunity to talk about it in more depth than I have before in previous posts. Yet if you can believe it, this was also a very restrained review. I could probably go on for twice as long as I already have talking about just the animated "Beauty and the Beast" and comparing it line for line with this remake, just with the story, themes and characters alone. I barely even touched on the set design, cinematography and visual effects and I don't think I even mentioned the actual score, which is one of Disney's best scores that they brought for this movie. Then there's all the controversies that needed addressing and the debate on the music that needed to be discussed. So yeah, this was a restrained review. Simply put, I am picky with my remakes, yet I have been excited for this remake for a long time as I thought it would make a beautiful transition into live action and I was right. This is a faithful adaptation that recaptures the magic of the original while also enhancing the story and filling in many of the gaps that were left unexplained. It's not as perfect as the animated movie, but I think it would be unfair to expect that or claim it's awful because it's not perfect. My grade for "Beauty and the Beast" is a 9/10.

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