“Beauty and the Beast” Alan Menken, Howard Ashman (1991)
Review by Ken Burke
Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon)
Long ago in rural France we see a fairytale come alive with actors (and a lot of excellent computer-based-imagery) rather than feature animation as an independent young woman's forced to be prisoner of a man turned into a hideous beast by an angry Enchantress so the essential question becomes: Can they truly learn to love each other in order to break his spell?
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): As a Disney live-action-remake of their own celebrated 1991 animated feature, this version of a well-known-fairytale follows the plot outlines and musical numbers of the previous Beauty … movie (adding a few new songs) where Belle, a young woman in a long-ago-rural-French-village, is more interested in knowledge and adventure than the loving-but-mundane-life she shares with her inventor father. That suddenly changes when Dad Maurice, on his way through the woods to market, stumbles upon a snowstorm (in June) which results in his discovery of a long-forgotten-castle held under the curse on an Enchantress teaching a life-lesson to an egotistical prince who’s been turned into a ghastly beast while his servants have become living household objects, with the only way for the spell to be broken is for the Beast to find true love before all the petals of a magical rose fall (there aren’t many left). Dad’s taken prisoner for plucking a rose from Beast’s garden, but his horse runs back to fetch Belle who takes her father’s place, fascinated by the magic of the castle but angry at the gruff "host." Maurice returns to the village asking for help to free his daughter, an offer accepted by dashing-but-conceited Gaston whose intention is to marry Belle, an offer rejected by Dad so Gaston leaves him to die in the forest.
Given that this version of the plot summary isn’t supposed to give away anything significant—although if you don’t already know how this story turns out you’ve done a commendable job of isolating yourself from fairytales, Disney movies, a Broadway musical version of the earlier animation, and a massive marketing campaign—I won’t divulge how the tale’s resolved regarding romance between Belle and the Beast, a violent confrontation between the suitors for Belle’s affections, and whether the curse is lifted. I will say the staging and musical numbers of this movie are infectiously-active, the computer-based-renderings of the enchanted characters are first-rate, while spirited Emma Watson (Belle) along with conflicted Dan Stevens (Beast) do invest you in their fates; I'll recommend this box-office-extravaganza even if not accompanying some wide-eyed-kids.
So, curious readers, if you can abide plot spoilers in order to learn much more about the particular cinematic offering under examination this week please feel free to read on for more of the traditional Two Guys in-depth-explorations in our brilliant (!)-but-lengthy review format.
What Happens: Several centuries ago, near the rural French village of Villeneuve, an ego-driven-prince (Dan Stevens) is having a grand ball in his castle when an old woman (Hattie Morahan) arrives, seeking shelter from a snowstorm but with only a rose to offer as gratuity. The Prince laughs it off only to have her revealed as a powerful Enchantress who puts a spell upon him and everyone else who’s not already fled from the castle when her true self manifests: The Prince will henceforth be a mighty-but-ugly-beast while his castlemates (mostly servants) are transformed into mobile, talking household objects. The only way for this curse to be broken is for the Beast to share true love with a willing human mate; however, to make the challenge more difficult (even as the castle’s surrounded by eternal snowfall, with the spell spilling into the nearby countryside so no one remembers it or its inhabitants exist) the Enchantress leaves the Beast with her magic rose, adding the stipulation that if all its petals fall before the demanded romance occurs the Prince will henceforth live on as the Beast while the other accursed will fully transform into inanimate objects.
From this somber (but visually-stunning) opening (with tracking shots through the huge castle, the immense ballroom dance scene prior to the disguised-Enchantress’ arrival, her grandly-swirling-transformation when ridiculed by the Prince) we move ahead for an unspecified amount of time into Villeneuve where attractive, boisterous Belle (Emma Watson) bursts through a door to greet the new day singing her opening number (“Belle” [sometimes called “Bon Jour”]) as she wanders through the village, allowing us to get a full sense of her environment along with the quietly-rude-dismissal of the townsfolk for being more interested in reading than accepting any convenient marriage proposal (she’s “different from the rest of us”) while she’s hoping to find adventure somehow (“There must be something more than this provincial life”). The local dashing lothario, Gaston (Luke Evans), would willingly be her husband, but she wants no part of his obnoxious-self-absorption.
A man whom Belle does appreciate is her loving father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), who's a talented inventor and music-box-maker supporting them by selling his wares in a nearby market, as her only frustration toward him is he won’t tell how her mother died nor why they moved away from Paris to this dull place when she was a baby. Adventure comes calling in a manner that neither of them would have expected, though, on the next day that Maurice heads out as usual in his old horse-drawn-wagon for that marketplace, only to oddly lose his way in the dense, local forest as he curiously follows an unknown trail where he’s first astounded to find snowfall in June, then threatened by the sudden appearance of a pack of wolves. In his attempt to escape the wagon flips over, wrecked, so Maurice rides off on his faithful horse, Philippe, the trail leading them to the Beast’s long-forgotten-castle. Inside, looking for help, Maurice initially thinks he’s being served a welcome meal but then bolts for the door when the enchanted objects talk to him. Yet, he stops in the garden to pluck a white rose (Belle always asks him to bring one for her, a memory connection to Mom) only to be stopped, then locked up by the angry Beast. Back home, inquisitive Belle invents an early form of a washing machine using a barrel, a round pond, and a mule, but it’s taken apart by local men, offended a young woman could be this intelligent. However, she’s soon relieved of this stifling environment by Philippe who rushed back to fetch her; she rides to the Beast’s castle, locates Maurice, makes an offer to take his place, then tricks her disapproving father by locking herself into the high tower’s cell, allowing him to leave with a whispered promise that she’ll somehow escape.
Once Belle's alone with the animated (computer-imaged) objects, mainly the central group of the upbeat candlestick/butler, Lumière (voice of Ewan McGregor)—a nice play on words, as his name means “light” which he always offers with his 3 lit candles—his flighty-lover, Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), once a maid now a feather duster; the dour mantel clock/head of the servants, Cogsworth (Ian McKellen); bright, ever-cheery teapot, Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), with her cute, close-at-hand teacup-son, Chip (Nathan Mack); along with such eager help for Belle from the noted opera singer Madame de Garderobe (Audra McDonald), now a wardrobe always ready to dress her new friend in aristocratic finery (which Belle rejects), and her husband, composer Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), who’s been turned into a harpsichord, she comes to find the castle a fascinating place (the locked cell didn’t last long) but she has no interest in the Beast. The others give her a sumptuous meal (she refuses the invitation to dine with her hairy-host, beseeched by his servants to be nice to her in hopes of somehow sparking some love interest in this newcomer) highlighted by the rousing “Be Our Guest” number (done here as a sort of blend of the flamboyant “Broadway Melody” sequence from Singin’ in the Rain [Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952] and the astounding acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil) after which she wanders into the castle’s forbidden west wing whereupon she sees the magical rose; Beast furiously chases her away from it, fearing she’ll cause more petals to drop, so she fearfully rushes away from her prison only to be accosted by wolves. Beast comes to her rescue, chasing them off with his superior strength, but he’s injured in the process so she helps him to the castle, then aids in his recovery. Meanwhile, Maurice returns to the village (surprisingly, the wolves didn’t bother him), seeking help to free his daughter; Gaston volunteers (hoping to curry favor with Belle), as the culmination of a rousing tribute to this self-absorbed-adventurer, led by his faithful friend, LeFou (Josh Gad), enamored with Gaston in more ways than he's yet to understand (or does he?).
Out in the wild woods, though, not only is the path to the castle no longer available but also Maurice makes it clear he doesn’t support Belle marrying Gaston so the brute ties him up, leaving him for the wolves until he’s rescued from this fate by the mysterious Agathe (Morahan, so I’ve already tipped you off she’s the Enchantress in disguise again, as she's likely pulling the strings to get Belle together with the Beast, giving him a decent, final opportunity to try to redeem himself). Maurice now once again comes back to the village where he accuses Gaston of attempted murder, only to be understood as crazy by Gaston’s counter-accusations, backed up by the uncomfortable-but-cooperating LeFou. Maurice is hassled by the townspeople, set up to be sent off to an insane asylum which Belle witnesses with a magic mirror given to the Beast by the Enchantress. (She gave him another charmed device that lets him travel, in an earlier scene, with Belle to anywhere in the world so she chooses Paris but arrives, in the past, to the garret where her parents lived, learning her mother [Zoe Rainey] died of the plague, Maurice urged to leave with his baby daughter before they succumb to it as well, leading him—for some unclear [to me] reason [but this is a fairytale]—to seclusion in the countryside [“Small means safe”—from what? disease?]; Beast also had a difficult childhood because his sweet mother [Harriet Jones] died when he was young, leaving him to be raised by his father, the King [Henry Garrett], who turned his son into a royal who’d give Gaston a run for his money as the most atrocious guy in the vicinity.) Beast allows Belle to return home to help her father (a heartbreaking turn for the enchanted objects, hoping she might be the means of breaking their spells), with the assumption that the love he’s come to have for her will never be returned, condemning everyone in the castle to a lifetime of the original curse.
But when Belle arrives back in the village just in time to keep Maurice from being carted away, proving her story of the Beast by showing the villagers his image in the magic mirror, dastardly Gaston intervenes by secretly arranging to have Belle locked into the padded wagon along with her father while he leads the townspeople into the woods to kill the Beast (how they’re now able to find the hidden pathway isn’t clear either, unless Agathe’s orchestrating all these events in a more direct manner than we know). Maurice manages to pick the lock on their set-up-as-a-woebegone-wagon before they’re carted off to insanity-confinement, whereupon Belle rushes back to aid Beast. At the castle the enchanted objects manage to hold off the torch-bearing-villagers, eventually sending them fleeing while Gaston confronts Beast in a high tower with the big guy about ready to just let himself be killed until he sees the returning Belle, who inspires him. Gaston and Beast battle with Gaston seemingly defeated, then allowed to leave, but instead he shoots Beast a couple of times before the ice bridge he’s standing on gives way, Gaston plummeting to his death. Beast dies as well with the tearful Belle at his side, the last rose petal falling from its stem, until Agathe appears, acknowledging true love has triumphed so she revives Beast as a changed-man-Prince, all the enchanted objects return to human form, and a celebratory ball is held (to the tune of “Beauty and the Beast”—there are many other songs in this movie, none of which impacted me as much as the 3 I’ve noted). During the joyous event, we get a very quick shot of LeFou dancing with a woman, then as partners change he’s with a man which brings from him a look of surprise, then pleasure, which is part of the scant evidence of this character being gay, although that’s been enough to bring about restrictions or outright prohibitions of this movie in Russia, Malaysia … and Henager, Alabama! (This link has a video that doesn't seem to be showing its imagery, but the audio's basically repeated in the text.) For everyone else, though, it's clear all’s well that ends well.
So What? As you can see in some useful detail in the 3rd listing for this movie included under the Related Links section quite a bit below, there are many connections of this latest version of Beauty and the Beast to previous Disney product (including the lauded earlier animated Beauty …, its later adaptation into a very successful Broadway play, etc.) with some of the songs here either being revived from nonuse in the earlier movie (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman) or written for this remake by Menken and Tim Rice, so this new version comes with enough background connections to virtually insure success—especially the $425 million worldwide gross of the previous movie, its win of a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy, and its status as the 1st animated feature to be nominated by Academy Awards voters for Best Picture (it probably didn’t have much chance against Silence of the Lambs [Jonathan Demme, 1991] in that category but it did win Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song [“Beauty and the Beast,” with “Belle” and “Be Our Guest” also nominated in this best-of-5-category, and don’t forget that in those days only 5 were chosen for Best Picture instead of up to 10 as is the case in their current system; this previous Beauty … was also nominated for the Sound production Oscar]), and fabulous critical support, with 93% positive reviews cited at Rotten Tomatoes, an unusually high 95% average score at Metacritic. That hopeful
anticipation paid off well because this remade Beauty … has already set numerous records in its opening week, piling up roughly $357 million worldwide (with about $174.7 million of that in the domestic [U.S.-Canada] market), which means it’s already turned a profit despite having rung up a total of roughly $300 million in expenses ($160 million for production, the rest residing in estimated distribution/ marketing costs) so Beauty ...'s clearly a "beauty" with audiences and accountants,* if not nearly so much as the previous version was with critics (RT 70%, MC 65%**).
*You might be interested in this Variety article about some speculations on why this current movie has been so fantastically-well-received, including the situation of Emma Watson’s established popularity from being in all those extremely-successful, worldwide-embraced Harry Potter episodes plus her other recent films, the built-in-audience-love for the animated Beauty and the Beast original (which this new version doesn’t subvert with intrusions from a modified storyline), and the proper-release-timing of a family-friendly-movie at a time of not much competition for such elsewhere in the moviehouse-market.
**A surprising almost-parallel-critical-reaction-situation for this remade version of Beauty and the Beast, given that the MC percentages tend to skew notably lower than the RT ones do because MC somehow assigns specific numbers to their reviews, then averages them out, while at RT it’s just a fairly-obvious-judgment-call at the site that a review either does or does not take a positive tone.
It’s been noted that these initial audiences for the new Beauty ... (in the U.S. at least) have been largely female. (I can’t say definitively that was the case at my Cinemark XD [!] theater over in San Francisco where my wife, Nina, and I saw it on our recent St. Patrick’s Day weekend excursion into the local metropolis, but maybe I was still just too much in shock at the $29 total ticket price for 2 seniors at an afternoon matinee—same situation in our home base of the suburban city of Hayward would have cost us considerably less, but given the $80 breakfast buffet at our hotel the next morning I guess the movie tickets were a bargain after all—to fully note much about our audience demographics.) Given the general male-character-domination of most box-office-hits (although there is a significant female presence in Logan [James Mangold; review in our March 8, 2017 posting]; however, this kid’s still being cheered on by male viewers for mirroring her testosterone-driven-warrior-[killer]-father [no complaints, you’ve been warned; spoilers continue anywhere beyond the 1st couple of paragraphs in these postings]), I understand why women and girls are anxious to see stories on screen more relatable to their social situations (even when they're in the realm of fantasy—as will be the likely-huge-debut of the ultimate female warrior when Wonder Woman [Patty Jenkins] hits our screens on June 2). Belle may be at the physical mercy of the wolves who attack her, requiring a savior (as anyone would, greatly-outnumbered as she was), but otherwise she’s completely in charge of her own life, dismissing the assumptions of her neighbors, standing firm against the attempted-impositions of Gaston, even being prisoner of the Beast as her own decision in trade for her father then staying to help her brutish rescuer when she could have just continued on home after the wolves’ attack had been fully thwarted. As a character, Belle’s intelligent, self-determined, creative, conscientious, admirable; as an actor, Watson well conveys those positive qualities with a commanding screen presence, verifying she’ll likely be a performer of substance for years to come.
In my earlier review of Kong: Skull Island I made note of 2 things that become relevant for this review as well: (1) This latest rendition of the King Kong story which opened recently doesn’t follow previously-known-plotlines about the lone female (Mason Weaver [Brie Larson] this time rather than Ann Darrow) of the expedition into the jungle being offered to the gigantic ape as a “bride,” nor is there any relocation to Manhattan (see, I told you; spoilers will continue to abound wherever they’re needed) for a “It was beauty killed the beast” finale, and (2) generally I don’t care for remakes unless they offer something notably useful over the original cinematic experience they’re based on (which does work for me with this version of Kong—just as it did with the same Legendary Entertainment remake of Godzilla [Gareth Edwards, 2014; review in our May 15, 2014 posting, despite my abysmal layout skills then and for most any posting prior to roughly 2015, but hopefully more recent ones are getting easier to look at and read]—because it allows the inhabitants of Skull Island to be truly impressive as computer-generated-imagery rather than stop-action-models or actors in monster suits). So, regarding my 1st point, if you missed that “beauty and the beast” aspect of the latest Kong (in one short scene he does look a bit longingly at Mason, but, thankfully, nothing comes of it) then you get the full version of that dynamic—not just a metaphorical imposition, especially given that the “beauties” in the earlier Kong movies have no option of restoring their "beast" to normal-sized-human-form, nor do they possess
any ability to save his life from military adversaries—in this actual presentation of Beauty and the Beast with all of the intended romance fully developed (here, Belle can’t prevent the Beast from dying either, but her sincere love for him is the source of his wondrous-resurrection by the Enchantress). As for the remake aspect, while I don’t fully see the need for it given the high quality of the 1991 version,* I must admit this production is impressive in every aspect, especially given I’m not even all that fond of musicals (as I noted before in my review of La La Land, which, even so, won me over just as both Beauty …'s did).
*Of course, the main reason for these re-launches is to generate more black ink—based on green paper (along with other colors in overseas markets)—in the corporate-ledgers, a policy Disney’s been successful with (many more such movies are planned) in remaking some of their animated features—Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, 2010; Oscars for Art Direction, Costume Design), Maleficent—a revisionist-retelling of Sleeping Beauty—(Robert Stromberg, 2014, review in our June 6, 2014 posting), Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh, 2015; review in our March 19, 2015 posting), The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau, 2016; review in our April 28, 2016 posting; Oscar for Visual Effects)—into significant monetary and critical triumphs (less so for the former 2 from reviewers), so Beauty and the Beast gives major incentive to keep up this refurbishing program, marketing beloved DVD stories in formats that excite slightly-older-children's-audiences (with useful memories for their brought-along-parents as well) using CGI-photo-like-imagery, presenting more sophisticated representations than you’ll find in the hand-drawn or computer-generated originals.
There’s something just too utterly charming about this rendition of Beauty and the Beast that I can’t dismiss it as I’m prone to do regarding frothy musicals (where the songs, such as the ones here, generally don’t probe into the more serious emotional depths you’d find in the rare sorts of musicals that do normally intrigue me, such as the caustic tunes in Cabaret [Bob Fosse, 1972] or Chicago [Rob Marshall, 2002]) or even standard remakes (that just have "box-office-bonanza" written all over them) because there's something “more” added here in the form of Watson and Stevens being able to inject the same level of “animation” into their characters that was so embraced in the earlier Disney feature without them seeming to be simply human versions of cartoons. (I can’t say the same for Evans as Gaston, who does come across to me as a cartoon come to life, in a more negative connotation of that phrase, although he still fits what he’s set up to accomplish in being an asinine antagonist for the Beast, never letting his assumed-superiority recede, no matter the circumstances, whereas his protagonist-adversary willingly transforms himself back into a higher level of humanity than he was as the previously-human-Prince, so it’s reasonable Gaston shouldn’t be as attractive in any manner as whom he’s pitted against, even when that guy is sort of a mash-up of a lion, a ram, and a wild boar.) Except for songs I noted in the review from the soundtrack, the others don’t move me all that much but they do function well in adding clarity and movement to the narrative, probably feeling more integral to the whole of the experience to those who either invest in musicals more frequently than I do or who could have come into last weekend’s screenings already primed for a sing-along-version (as some screenings of La La Land are being promoted, probably in an attempt to milk one last payday from this flamboyantly-engaging, 6-Oscar winner).
What keeps me from a 4-star-rating for Beauty …, though, is possibly more my problem than with what’s on screen, in that my firm-familiarity with the plot left me intrigued at the beginning (to see if the project of animation-to-live-action-translation works as well as it needs to) but then increasingly a bit underwhelmed during the middle (except for my very-engaged-enjoyment of the few spectacularly-choreographed-musical-numbers) waiting for the grand, inevitable triumph at the end. Others may stay hooked throughout, but I was too anxious for seeing just a few more character-probing-encounters to occur than what this fairytale-narrative allows.* Based on all of the above, I’ll say I found a lot to like in this new Beauty and the Beast, although I don’t see it as being any sort of player when the 2017 Oscar nominations roll around (box-office-champions is another consideration entirely), would recommend it to anyone for an enjoyable experience (except parents so overdone with kids belting out “Be My Guest” to their home DVDs of the animated feature that they just can’t bring themselves to hear this soundtrack one more time—especially if they have to pay $15 or more to see it, along with the cost of bringing those excitable-kids along).
*I realize this makes 5 reviews in a row where I’ve given out a 3½-star-rating, but I continue to do my best to be honest and consistent with those decisions so that’s just how it works out. Maybe next time I’ll be notably more or less impressed than what my 3½ implies.
Finally, I couldn’t offer a more appropriate Musical Metaphor (as I do at the end of every review for a last look at the subject matter under exploration but from the perspective of an aural art form) than the well-known “Beauty and the Beast” song itself (probably feels like a “Song as old as rhyme” by now), this time in a dazzling music video created to mirror the experience of this new movie (incorporating footage from it or shot to resemble it), sung by Ariana Grande and John Legend at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axySrE0Kg6k (they sing it on the soundtrack of the movie’s finale as well while Emma Thompson, as Mrs. Potts, also leads an ensemble version of this romantic song in the earlier private ballroom dance scene of Belle and her emerging paramour). This “tale as old as time” doesn’t feel stale at all in this new incarnation, where it’s “Ever a surprise” even as it’s “Ever as before And ever just as sure As the sun will rise.”
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2016’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 26, 2017 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2016 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists. You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2016 along with the Oscar nominees and winners for 2016 films.
Here’s more information about Beauty and the Beast :
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ekjl5xzjJw (11:34 video on 17 Easter Eggs and hidden details in the movie)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken*
*Please note that YouTube keeps taking down various versions of this majestic Eagles performance at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so I have to keep putting in newer links (of the same damn material) to retrieve it; this “Hotel California” link was active when I did this posting but the song won’t be available in all of our previous ones done before 2/16/2017. Sorry, but there are too many postings to go back and re-link every one. The corporate overlords triumph again.
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
UNLESS YOU’RE READING THIS ON A MACINTOSH COMPUTER USING MAC OS X 10.10.5 AND SAFARI 10.0.3 YOU MAY SEE A SLOPPIER PRESENTATION THAN WHAT WE INTENDED (Google Chrome 56.0.2987.110 meets our layout design; hopefully all other options will look decent also). OUR APOLOGIES FOR ANY INADVERTENT MESS THAT WE CAN’T CONTROL.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 21,146; below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week: