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Daffy & Lebeau (sing it)

The big movie release of this past weekend, if I can believe the hype I’ve seen and the strong crowds I experienced, was the live action adaptation of the Disney classic Beauty and the Beast. The 1991 animated musical production is one of the most beloved in the Disney canon, winning Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, and becoming the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. The affection and nostalgia still attached to the animated film have made this year’s adaptation perhaps the most hotly anticipated live action Disney film of the past decade.

Join Lebeau and me as we discuss our own histories with the story and our reactions to the new film. There are mild spoilers here, but if you’ve seen the previous Disney film, the general story shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

Daffystardust : For me personally the 1991 film represents my initial re-introduction to the magic of Disney animation. As I’ve discussed before here at LeBlog, Disney went through an extended rough patch following the passing of Walt Disney, with an uncertain studio and wavering management resulting in generally lesser output and inconsistent box office stretch throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s. In that span of time I was born and graduated from high school. The generally agreed-upon start to the Disney Renaissance with 1989’s The Little Mermaid seemed like a pleasant blip on the radar at first.

In my senior year of college, when my school’s football team had an unlikely run of wins and was invited to the Peach Bowl in Atlanta some friends and I decided to make the trip from our little college town in North Carolina to the game in Atlanta. On the way, we stopped at the childhood home of one of us to spend the night before moving on with his parents joining us. While we were there we decided to go out and see Beauty and the Beast, and I count it among the handful of experiences in my life in which I genuinely fell in love with a film while sitting in the movie theater. It happened after the prologue as Disney’s well known multi-plane animation panned by and through a rural setting and our heroine strolled towards us singing the show-opener bearing her name, “Belle.” I recall a feeling coming over me sitting there in that moment that I was in for something special. The animation, the music, her voice, and even the character design was all perfect. I was not wrong. Beauty and the Beast would become the first Disney animated film released in my lifetime that I would genuinely love.

With this in mind, I approached the new live action adaptation with a bit of trepidation. I knew that it could never replace the 1991 version for me, but I did want to like it. What I found was good, but still a mixed bag. We’ll get into that. What is your history with Disney’s version of this story, Lebeau?

Lebeau: Funny you should ask.  The first time I saw Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was on a date with a pretty girl who I am pretty certain didn’t want to be there with me.  I was very sympathetic to The Beast that night.  Despite the rush my date was in to get back to her dorm room, I was so enchanted by the movie that I didn’t really care that she saw me as LeFou when she really wanted to go out with Gaston.  Or at least someone taller.

When I first heard Disney was adapting this story, I had a reaction similar to the hesitations you had about the live action movie.  When I was a boy, I saw a version of Beauty and the Beast on TV.  If I remember correctly it was done with marionettes.  My memories are hazy, but the story really grabbed me and I wasn’t certain Disney could do it justice.  It was my favorite fairy tale for reasons I am still not able to articulate.

Given my love of the source material, it’s probably not that surprising that the 1991 movie became my favorite Disney animated feature.  It is the barometer by which I judge all other animated musicals.  However, I fell in love with the fairy tale first and the movie second.  That leaves me open to other interpretations.  I don’t need nor do I really want a scene for scene reenactment of the original Disney movie.  Which I suppose is a good thing because the new movie makes a lot of small but significant changes.

How did those changes sit with you?

Daffystardust: The story changes were actually mostly good, but there were a few that tread water at best. The plot holes from the 1991 version which you wrote about a while back were cleaned up pretty simply and I liked that they reintroduced the request Belle makes for the rose on her Father’s journey from the original story. While most of the added songs were relatively disposable, I did enjoy the new song sung by the Beast, and felt like Dan Stevens sounded like one of the better singers in the movie. The explanation and mechanics for how the castle had remained hidden was done relatively elegantly, too.

I would like to address some of the changes that were not ideal though, and place them into two categories, but both negatively impacted the movie’s pace.

First, it seems to me that in an attempt to flesh out and add characters, the storytelling became a little muddled. There’s a reason for rote character types and story tropes. They allow the audience to understand a person or story situation very efficiently without having to have a conversation about who they are or what’s going on. Character types are established from way back to commedia dell’arte for this very reason. If the script and dialogue are well written then people will be too entertained to worry about why they are the way they are.

As much as I like Josh Gad and appreciate the instinct to give him something more multi-dimensional to play than a simple sycophant, was that really necessary for the movie? I can’t remember anybody I have ever talked to complaining that we didn’t get to know LeFou any better. While I have seen people wonder about Belle’s Mother, I’m not sure we needed to spend as much time talking about her absence as we did.

Maurice never told Belle her Mother died of the plague because….? The story is set in a much less forgiving day and age (the 1740s). People died all the time for a variety of reasons and her Mother’s fate as revealed was not far off from what I’d imagined and dismissed in the space of moments in the past. (anyway, Belle’s presence in Paris in Hunchback was inches from being explained, but they decided to send her out of the city of lights as an infant…oh well)

Secondly, I was a little distracted by the amount of “air” that was inserted into many of the previously existing songs. Phrasing that was previously quick and playful with clever lines cascading one after the other became less so with extra bars of lyric-less music repeatedly added. This might have come out to about 30 extra seconds in the film overall, which isn’t a big deal, but it did slow down the internal momentum of the songs and the scenes they were in.
Cut this down and you’ve got a movie that comes in at less than two hours instead of feeling padded out at two hours and nine minutes.

Of course I should mention here that I did, in fact, enjoy the movie despite the number of quibbles I’m going to be airing here.

Lebeau: For the most part, I liked the movie too.  I sort of question the need for any of these live action adaptations to exist.  Most of these stories were chosen to be animated because they had elements that played to the strengths of that art form.  That’s definitely true of Beauty and the Beast with its enchanted castle and magical transformations.

What we get with these modern movies is live actors interacting in a photo realist CGI rendered world.  But it’s still largely animated.  And in order to look natural around Emma Watson, the other characters have to appear less cartoonish.  The problem with that is that a realistic talking candlestick slowly losing his humanity is kind of horrifying.

As for the story changes, I feel like someone made a list of every snarky criticism anyone has ever made about the original movie and wrote a script that addresses every single one of them whether they needed addressing or not.  I agree with you that the dying mother plotline was unnecessary and took up too much screen time.  (As for Belle in Paris, I always assumed she and the prince traveled after his transformation.)

I sort of liked the added dimension for LeFou.  The review I read from NPR said Gad stole the movie.  Not sure I agree with that, but I liked seeing the character have a bit more of an arc.

As for the songs, I did occasionally notice the “air” you talked about.  And I am not one to notice these sorts of things.  The movie as a whole felt like it had been over-inflated.  The original movie was so lean audiences were able to be carried along despite some logical inconsistencies.  This movie keeps stopping to explain things I didn’t really need to have explained.

I did like the return of the rose though.  And I was glad to see Kevin Kline’s Maurice portrayed as less of a bumbling stock character and more a concerned father.

Daffystardust: You are right on the mark in characterizing the animated version as “lean” and this one as less so. It also appears to trust its audience less. There was about a 30 second scene just before the villagers arrive at the door of the castle in which the various servants give us a recap of what the curse they’re under does and what the stakes are for the rest of the movie that seemed utterly unnecessary and repetitive. I asked my Mom about it later in the day and although she had little memory of her one previous viewing of the Renaissance-era picture, she agreed that the scene spent time explaining something we already know.

In the category of poor execution, I felt like LeFou’s line to Mrs Potts explaining why he’d switched sides was both unnecessary and awkwardly written. What grown person uses the phrase “I used to be on Gaston’s side…?” It sounds like something a seven-year old would say when he was playing with his toys. We know why he’s changed allegiances. We saw Gaston use him as a human shield twice and then abandon him. We saw LeFou question every dicey decision Gaston made throughout the movie. All we need is the right facial expression from Gad when Gaston refuses to help him. This is an example of “show-don’t-tell.”

Let’s cover the controversy attached to the film really quickly. Not long before the release date, director Bill Condon announced that it contained what he called an “exclusively gay moment” and all hell broke loose on social media. A couple of different foreign countries have weighed refusing the film, a drive-in movie theater in Alabama made headlines by deciding not to screen it, and there have been petitions to ban the movie by self-proclaimed “family” groups which at last count have garnered fewer than 200,000 signatures.

Early box office reports don’t seem to suggest that the movie has suffered from the mixed reactions to this news.

More significantly to my eyes, there appear to be three different moments which Condon could have been referring to, but none of them would be out of place in a Bugs Bunny cartoon from the 1940s.

Seems like much ado about nothing to me. You have kids Lebeau, was there anything in the movie that you thought was inappropriate for elementary-aged children?

Lebeau: We watch TV shows like Modern Family and Supergirl which include same-sex couples.  Nothing in Beauty and the Beast approached what our kids are used to seeing on those shows.  Anyone who is scandalized by LeFou making eyes at Gaston should really wake up and smell the 21st century.  I was expecting a same-sex kiss at a minimum.  No such luck.

I do give the movie some credit for being progressive.  There was a bit of diversity in the poor provincial town and multiple biracial relationships.  I suppose I could get political and talk about how Gaston’s blustering brand of ignorance and hyper-masculinity make him the perfect villain for the Trump era, but I am not going to do that.  Nope, not me.  No sir.

Daffystardust: Far be it from us to over-politicize a musical fairy tale. The content of the actual film doesn’t really warrant it.

Let me ask you a different question. Did you think the stacked cast was necessary? The strongest performances seemed to me to be coming from the smaller names like Dan Stevens and Luke Evans.

Lebeau: Not at all.  I forgot who a lot of the voice actors were while I was watching the movie.  At the end when they all reverted to a recognizable human form, I remembered that the servants included several well-known actors.

I saw McGregor on Colbert where he admitted to never having seen the original.  He also apologized for his French accent.  He described the process which seems to have mostly involved traditional voice acting with a little motion capture which the animators based his character’s mannerisms on.  It might have been a better idea to cast someone less famous who was going to be more invested in the project rather than an actor who rather sheepishly mentions it while promoting Trainspotting 2.

Daffystardust: It almost seems like stunt casting so the audience can say “hey, look who that is!” at the end of the movie. But exactly how famous are Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor, and Emma Thompson for most laypeople? Am I underestimating their appeal to the toddler set?

I would rather have had more talented singers in the Mrs Potts and Lumiere roles. I don’t think you need those names to sell this movie.

The one cast member who does need to be famous is the one playing Belle, and Emma Watson certainly brings a genre fan base with her. Unfortunately, though she fits the role well, her limitations both as an actress and as a singer are on display. Her singing was noticeably auto-tuned and although her intelligence and bravery are believable, there are some scenes in which she failed to hit the more detailed acting notes that would have been ideal. I think I like her more as a personality than I do as an actual performer.

Lebeau: I have seen some criticism for Watson’s performance.  Her singing especially.  Like I said before, I am not inclined to make those kinds of criticism.  I lack the background for it.  For me, the singing was never an issue.

There were moments in which Watson seemed in a little over her head.  She looks enough like Belle that she can coast a little bit and let her wardrobe do the heavy lifting.  I assume we will be talking about that yellow ball gown come Oscar season next year.

Having said that, I was mostly won over by Watson’s charms to the extent that I could forgive the moments when she seemed less than fully invested.

I think the primary appeal of this movie is the nostalgia factor inherent in seeing iconic scenes from a beloved animated feature reenacted by live performers.  I will admit to being swept up in seeing Watson and Stevens glide across the ballroom.

Daffystardust: I agree. There is a stretch of the film starting with their preparations for the dance and through his new song after he lets her leave when both of them are in top form. If the rest of her performance had matched those scenes, her Belle might have been truly remarkable.

Prior to seeing the film on Saturday I shared with my Mom that I was going to have to successfully navigate my own nostalgia for the 1991 film in order to judge this version fairly. I knew there would be visual and musical moments that would grab me by the heart pretty strongly if they were even competently executed. I also knew that if the film had shortcomings, I was in danger of judging it too harshly. The latter might appear to be what I’ve done based on my litany of complaints, but I’m actually giving the movie a solid recommendation, especially for anyone who is a fan of the Oscar-nominated production or who is just a Disney fan in general. It’s an entertaining film with some beautiful and iconic musical compositions.

Lebeau: I also enjoyed the movie and would recommend it to fans of the story or the original Disney version.  I doubt I would ever choose to watch the new movie over the animated version.  But as a piece of spectacle to be watched once, the remake fit the bill.
Most of my enjoyment stemmed from my love of previous tellings of the tale (as old as time).  This movie didn’t need to do much to win me over.  I’m predisposed to have an emotional reaction to this material.  Put a pretty girl in a yellow dress, have her sing the songs and dance with a furry dude and you’re halfway there.  This movie didn’t aim higher than that, but it hit its mark.  That’s all I needed.

Daffystardust: So if we’re keeping score, we both have criticisms of the movie and neither of us thinks it has a chance to replace the classic animated version. But we do believe for Disney fans and regular movie goers, it’s still a fun piece of entertainment that we’d recommend.

On the other hand, if you were hoping for something actually scandalous in your family entertainment you’re out of luck here.

Lebeau: I’d say that’s a fair summation.

Daffystardust: Great! Thanks for joining me for the conversation!

Lebeau:  Always a pleasure.

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Posted on March 20, 2017, in Analysis, Daffy and Lebeau, Movies, reviews, that's messed up and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. So it does have some changes after all? That’s weird, considering the trailers made it look exactly like the original, just in live action, which I’ll admit doesn’t make me interested in seeing it (nothing against the original, it’s just that if I wanted to see it, I could just buy it on itunes, I don’t need to watch what looks like a live action version with new actors but everything else is the same). Also, I’ll have to be honest, what else makes me uninterested is that the character designs for the servants look creepy, especially Mrs. Potts and Chip.

    Like

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