Saturday, March 18, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017) splendidly reimagines a tale as old as time

Beauty and the Beast live-action review
Photo Credit: Beauty and the Beast / Walt Disney Studios
A remake rarely fills a gap of something that simply wasn’t there before in the original. As Disney re-imagines a string of their own animated classics into live-action flicks, it’s difficult to imagine why they’d want to toy with perfection. Their transformation of the timeless Beauty and the Beast is truly spellbinding, if a little imperfect.

In a tale as old as time, Emma Watson stars as Belle, an independent bookworm who dreams of a bigger life than the one her small, provincial town expects. As a self-absorbed veteran Gaston (Luke Evans) sets out to own her affection, she is compelled to break a powerful spell held over another self-absorbed beast (Dan Stevens), who is actually a prince in disguise. Only one is truly worthy of her kindness to discover more than what meets the eye.

Unlike remakes of one life-like movie to another, this one must switch animation into the real world, or as real as it gets for a fairytale. As a redesigned fantasy, the movie first comes alive in a whole new world.

It starts with Belle, the first revolutionary Disney Princess. Forever known for playing fellow bookworm Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, Watson takes on another childhood heroine for the ages. Just as determined, spunky and curious as before, but a touch cleverer and a step ahead of everyone else, Belle’s independence reveals a fierce need to brainstorm her way out of corners, follow her heart, and protect her father. Having only each other in the entire world, their relationship is deepened with a loving, tangible closeness and protectiveness. Despite re-introducing her to the 21st-century, Belle doesn’t feel like a modern figure dropped into a fairytale, but instead a gal who will continue to inspire young girls to not be afraid of wanting adventure and being a geek.

Watson’s counterparts are charmingly matched by Dan Stevens and Luke Evans. Having to act out his role twice – once on steel stilts in a lycra suit for his body language and then motion-capture for his facial expressions, Stevens’ Beast is truly remarkable. It’s not just his physical transformation from superficial, judgmental prince to a reformed monster that is inspiring, but his emotional one too. His performance is marked with a longing that takes you through his arrogance to anger and horror, then compassion and love. Though they might be similar in personality here and there, he beautifully contrasts Evans’ brooding Gaston who isn’t just a villain for evils’ sake.

Gaston was already misogynistic in the original, but here, his arc is even scarier – one that goes from vain, buffoonish "charm" into an uncontrolled brute. Joined by his sidekick Le Fou, played by Josh Gad, they have chemistry. Their complicated broship is intriguing, especially when Gaston's ego influences the town until the real monster is revealed.

To top it off, her family and friends are played by a scroll’s worth of legends: Ewan McGregor (as Lumiere), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Audra McDonald (Madame de Garderobe), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth) – to name a few. Like Belle and her counterparts, even the funny and heartwarming enchanted objects have broader relationships. Their humor and desperation add urgency to breaking the spell. They might be household objects but there's a great sense of humanity and personality with their voices.

Besides a new cast embodying familiar characters, the enduring voice of the film comes from the soundtrack, which is as whimsical and vigorous as ever. “Belle and “Be Our Guest” to “Gaston” and “The Mob Song” flows through the story with excitement, yearning, and melancholy to express characters’ desperation, anger, and love. The addition of tunes like “A Change in Me”, “Days in the Sun”, “How Does A Moment Last Forever”, and a heartbreaking ballad “Evermore” by Beast, offer more depth than just adding different dialogue. Though Emma Watson and Dan Stevens might not be the most seasoned singers (Disney unnecessarily autotunes them), their interpretations are earnest while stage-before-film talents like Josh Gad and Luke Evans pull out all the stops. Each performance flows and compels the story with joy, longing, and melancholy, and is simply addictive.

How do you remake a story where people can recite the whole movie? With the addition of new songs, the story has a little more meat on its bones. The chemistry between characters are honored, like Lumiere and Cogsworth banter to Mrs. Potts nurturing Chip, but also expanded details one may not have thought of before. How does the town not know about the prince's transformation? What happens to tAgathe the enchantress? The movie falls along the same plot of Belle’s quest to find the beauty within, but also offers little twists to the curse, adds to Belle and Beasts’ childhoods, and differentiate Beast and Gastons’ relationship to Belle. Disney isn’t trying to compete with perfection but fills in gaps moviegoers might not have felt before.

Alterations also invite a lavish makeover of the story’s entire look. Though the cartoon could physically break the laws of what characters were physically capable of like Le Fou used a punching bag without getting paralyzed or dying, the cast behave and move realistically without becoming too boring or robotic.

The production design capitalizes on taking the movie to another level. CGI and practical effects morph Belle’s village and Beast’s castle from the drawing board into physical places you’d love to explore in person. Characters like Lumiere and Cogsworth to costumes like Belle’s iconic yellow dress aren’t something to visually marvel but feel marvelously palpable. The lovable and enchanted hand-drawn spectacle becomes an escape to sweep you off your feet. It’s difficult to leave this fairytale world behind.

The film’s only imperfections are the lack of changes lingering from the central romance and the overblown hype about Le Fou’s sexuality. Firstly, since Belle and Beast’s relationship begins with her being held captive, it’s hard not to (for me, watch others) debate how much of their affection is a result of the Stockholm syndrome, or the less talked-about Lima syndrome. Gaston and Beast’s similar personalities are only resolved because one actually changes their ways. I love to examine and dig into the script, so there's a bigger contrast between the characters for me than most. Some may have to delve into the actor’s performances and choices to find the differences.

And then Le Fou’s sexuality isn’t remotely worthy of backlash. His arc from idolizing Gaston to recognizing his friend’s demented ego is profound, and Gad plays it wonderfully. But Disney had an around-about way of playing on the natural homoerotic undertones between him and Gaston from the original with making it slightly richer and fuller. As Gaston obsessed over Belle, Le Fou empowerment of his feelings falls a little flat. Neither character is regressive, but there could've been more to build up Le Fou's sexuality with and without Gaston.

Interestingly, stories have been re-adapted since the beginning of time. It becomes a bit of a spectacle with movies more than anything else, where battle lines are drawn by critics and fans about which version is better or best. To me, a smart remake knows it can’t undo the past and attempts something unique. As hardcore as I am about the previous beloved adaptation – Belle is sacred princess territory for me - my childhood or nostalgia didn’t wilt away with this makeover. The newer elements are well-paced, whereas the original feels like it whizzes by too quickly. It had romance, adventure, music, tugs at the heartstrings and is an emotional whirlwind. My love for the 1991 movie was happily revived and grows stronger with this version.

Beauty and the Beast was aware of the generational love for the original. With a competent director, joyful cast and magical production in a tale as old as time, Disney’s definitive classic turns into a lifelike showstopper. Both share the journey of discovering more than what meets the eye with vibrant characters and enchanted storytelling. This rendition stays true to its roots while adding fresh elements to be its own beast. It’s truly a beauty.

Have you seen Beauty and the Beast?
What did you think?

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