Film Review

‘Beauty and the Beast’ (2017). SPOILER Review.

It’s difficult to know how to begin a review about one of the most hotly anticipated reboots of the year: people have cheered, people have sneered, and almost everyone I know who has seen this latest Live Action retelling of one of Disney’s finest animated masterpieces can’t. stop. singing.

Still from imdb.com, ©Disney Enterprises.

A badly scripted review would possibly say this: a young protagonist, of unsurpassed beauty, tires of the life presented before her by her boring and narrow minded village. She is repulsed by the backwater misogyny of her would-be suitor, and desires escape towards a great, unknown adventure. Said adventure presents itself in the form of a decrepit castle, a household of unfailingly optimistic cutlery, knick-knacks and nineteenth century whitegoods, and a particularly hirsute gentleman with an impressive head of horns. After some predictably bumpy first impressions, the two hit it off after discovering a shared love of books and that most common convention of all fairy stories: a dead mother. However, fate intervenes, and no sooner than the two begin to understand their emotions than Ignoramuses Anonymous, in the form of the villagers and the spurned lump of potent masculinity, come barraging in and attempt to Save the Day. Luckily, this is a PG fairy tale, so the castle remains mostly singed more than destroyed, the vile example of Angry Friendzone is defeated, and True Love transforms all ills back into their former gilded glory. Beast softens, rediscovering his own inner aestheticism in the eyes of one who sees beyond the tusks, and sweeps his saviour into his arms and promises a lifetime of oddly favourable memories of when her Prince was a tad hairier around the chin. The End.

This consideration, however, will endeavour to present a review that delves into the intricate beauty of this tale which, for all that it is a reboot, gives spectators a sumptuous and glittering interpretation of this most loved adventure. The story is a tale as old as time, or at least as old as our fondest memories of the animated extravaganza released in the early 1990s. It is epic, it is majestic, it sweeps spectators along for the ride with effortless ease, and it is as bewitching as the spell placed upon the eponymous Beast and his entourage.

Still from imdb.com, ©Disney Enterprises.

Emma Watson had some rather big animated shoes to fill, but does so admirably. It’s unfair to compare the animated against the live action, so I’ll stop that train of thought before it even begins. This Belle is feisty, intelligent and frankly unimpressed with the lot she is presented with: Watson embodies frustrated yearning with every fibre of her being, and though she can at times seem a little smug in her deliberate flouting of societal mores, she is an inherently sympathetic heroine for any modern audience member. Her woes are as much an issue today as they were in this nineteenth-century France: a young woman is judged for her beauty, her breeding potential and her inability to fit into the roles presented before her by her village.

Her compassion, once she reaches the castle, demonstrates a wisdom and patience beyond her years. She might rail against the frustrations of her short-tempered captor, but she herself must learn an important lesson: live by example, and give kindness to others as you would wish to be treated. She despised the behaviour predicated for her by those she left behind, so her own judgement of the Beast must-needs be amended if she is to lead by example. She is brave, and meets every test put before her in the final act of the film. Her reward is manifold- she has a Prince who will treasure her above all of the gilded artifacts in his castle; she has position to make change for the lives of others, where before she was reliant upon the status of her father for protection; she has friends who cherish her for being herself where once she was isolated, and that is probably the greatest reward of all.

Still from imdb.com, ©Disney Enterprises.

Dan Stevens brings a wonderfully grounded nature to the Beast: though he may be of royal lineage, this character shows a fascinating baseness to his seemingly brattish behaviour. Yes his character has been honed by a series of drastically unfair and unseemly circumstances, but there is a warmth and sympathetic quality to this interpretation that bridges an associative gap that the cartoon caricature could not achieve. Impressively animated, the Beast possesses a leonine countenance that is fabulously multifaceted, at once anthropomorphically aligning the hostility of the animal kingdom to the nature of the curse, whilst providing a cruel reminder to our beastly Prince of all that he used to be within his physical similarities to an iconic symbol of  royalty. So near, yet so far.

Stevens also brings a smooth, purring quality to the role, and even manages his original song with romantic aplomb. A new insert to the film, which might have seemed a desperate attempt at originality within a fairly match-on-action reboot, the song doesn’t seem forced in its performance. As he prowls and lunges about his crumbling castle, Beast’s acceptance of his mortal descent into a confirmed bestial existence contrasts against the pathetic acceptance of unrequited belonging to a soul he (then) believes he will never see again.

It’s with genuine pleasure that we see the hope begin to kindle in the entire countenance of our male protagonist: though we are never truly repulsed by the Beast (indeed, we often have to be reminded of his more unsightly aspects), it was with a sense of  bubbling glee that as the first real smile spread across his features (no fangs, this time) that we recognise an answering grin shining from our own faces. It’s these moments of empathetic humanity that make us cheer the two would-be lovers on and, though the majority of audiences already know the outcome, make the Happily-Ever-After ending all the sweeter.

Still from imdb.com, ©Disney Enterprises.

No-one’s sick as Gaston, temper’s quick like Gaston, no-one leaves old men to die in the woods tied to a tree as potential dinner for wolves like Gaston…

Luke Evans is well known for his stoic, heroic and easy on the eye character roles– Gaston is very easy on the eye physically, but as Belle aptly points out, of all of the roles in this film he’s the real Beast, not our transformed Prince. Gaston swaggers, smirks and bullies his way throughout the film, a grotesque version of the cartoon-archetype villain from the 90s animated narrative. The entire village seems to want to believe Gaston to be the war-hero he claims to be, a captain to lead his people, but in the tavern sequence it is Lefou’s coinage that encourages people to sing and dance Gaston’s praises, not the strength of his charisma.

There is a lot of humour masking genuine horror about this character: from the appeasing pleas of a henchman suggesting remembrance of the blood, violence and created widows from the “happier days” of the war, to the readiness of our villain to physically manipulate any who would stand in his way. Humour sugar-coats a lot of ills, and hopefully a lot will pass over the heads of the younger audience members, but for the more mature viewers it makes the whole film a darker experience. Even Gaston’s death, though partially witnessed in the animated feature, packs a punch: plummeting to his death, we hear his yell and we hear the impact of a body hitting the floor- it is a vivid, but unseen, reminder of equilibrium restored, a violent death for a violent man.


Still from imdb.com, ©Disney Enterprises.

What about the “Second” characters? Belle’s father Maurice, or Gaston’s faithful retainer Lefou, not to mention the host of the castle such as Cogsworth or Lumiere?

No character is left without background embellishment: there is a depth to the tragedy of Maurice and Belle’s relocation to a small, provincial village- the death of a beloved mother, the flight of a father desperate to save his infant child, adds poignant vibrancy to a character dismissively styled a crackpot inventor in the previous tale. Kline, who has been known for his sarcastic, comedic and often zaney characterizations is gentle, saddened and morosely proud of his beautiful, intelligent daughter. He is never extravagant, and his comedy is timed perfectly.

Josh Gad’s Lefou, whose narrative was loud-haled as a controversial,  explosive extravaganza of sexuality, does not flamboyantly scream his Otherness from the rooftops as the chatter might have indicated. Instead, Lefou is every best friend we might ever desire, and if his preferences are gradually revealed over the course of the film, it is never made to seem exaggerated or comedic. There are quirks which suggest, but it is never forced upon us, and certainly doesn’t deserve the opprobium it has received from some…

Still from imdb.com, ©Disney Enterprises.

The household of the castle, the enchanted retainers and servants, bring extraordinary humanity to the narrative for a variety of otherwise inanimate objects: the mechanical assuredness of a clock is now fraught and stuffy, haughtily brought to life by the infamous Sir Ian McKellen. The luminescence of our romantic, eyebrow-waggling candelabra Lumière purrs, croons and animatedly chatters his way through the film, ably voiced by Ewan McGregor, whose French accent is the perfect shade of Camembert. Emma Thompson’s Mrs Potts had a mountain of a task to climb, competing with the iconic Angela Lansbury, but her maternal no-nonsense persona is more than a match for her predecessor. The iconic song accompanying the ballroom scene presented, without a doubt, one of the more challenging elements of the reboot: not meaning to sound flippant, but Thompson nails it. It is sufficiently similar to bring about a nostalgic glow to the viewers, but different enough to be a standalone masterpiece.

The ethnic diversity of the cast is something to shout about: though not major characters, the roles of Plumette and Madame Garderobe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Audra McDonald respectively, demonstrate a step forward in the progressive fight for screened equality of actors from all races and creeds. Both are sympathetic and beautifully crafted characters, bringing to life the struggles of those whose lives depend upon the actions of others, but whose resolution is rewarded with the reunion of loved ones in the grand finale. It was a breath of fresh air to note that the reverend, too, was an actor of colour: Ray Fearon as Père Robert is a softly spoken, intelligent and highly empathetic chaperone for Belle’s thirst for literary exploration, providing her more than religious guidance, but also a friendly and accepting face amidst the animosity of the village. 

Still from imdb.com, ©Disney Enterprises.

What else can be said about this film. The mise-en-scène deserves a review entirely for itself, with accents from the animated feature blending sumptuously into aesthetics from the 1946 Cocteau classic La Belle et le Bete. The castle is a labyrinthine masterpiece of past splendour corrupted by blindess, greed and cruelty, at once gothic, magical and astonishingly Grimm. The music, possibly one of the hardest tasks for this reboot, is just as magnificent sonically as the visuals: the soundtrack will without doubt be one of the major selling points for the success of this film. Each score is as memorable, emotive and aesthetically perfect as its predecessor, and brings the entire narrative to its highest possible finish.

There is so much more to be included in this review, but to continue would be drawing this review into essay territory. Though not without faults (minor plotholes that don’t surface in your mind until long after the credits roll), this film is set to be a deserved box office success. To compare it to the 1991 animated feature is inescapable but unfair, as this piece brings so much more to the table than its “remake” status might suggest: it is an epic piece, bringing the swell and scale of a Golden Era Hollywood musical to the fore in many of the numbers, whilst the narrativity brings light and shade to an otherwise simple plot.

If there is only one aspect that I would redress about this film, it is the complexity of Beast’s anonymity: we are presented with a nameless noble, punished for his ignorant arrogance, and his cruel pursuit of hedonistic luxuries. When the curse is lifted, indeed, even during the feature, we are never introduced to the man behind the fangs: Belle is given a name, a meaning, a purpose, an identity, it is an odd and novel prospect that the heroic protagonist is refused his mark of humanity, left a blank canvas at the concluding moments. It could be that this is the mysticism, the romance of the curse, but maybe too this is something that would have seemed too saccharine, too perfect to provide.

Tale as old as time? Maybe. Tale as timeless as romance? Very possibly. Tale that needs to be seen to be experienced? Absolutely. Go ahead, be their guest, and put their movie to the test.

Still from imdb.com, ©Disney Enterprises.

 

‘Beauty and the Beast’, dir. Bill Condon. PG. In cinemas now.

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