Something unexpected happens when familiar tales are re-imagined for new audiences. Since much of the story is well-known, it allows those gathered to focus less on the story, and more on the voice doing the telling. Plot and prose take a back seat to cadence and inflection, which can bring new life and luminosity to a well-known story…
…or it can screw up the story entirely.
It’s a tale as old as time.
Once there was a young prince (Dan Stevens) who lived a lush life in a grand castle. One night, as he’s holding a lavish ball when disheveled beggar woman comes calling, he mocks her before turning her away. Seeing the vain and uncaring nature of the prince’s heart, the beggar – actually an enchantress – casts a spell on him, his home, and everyone in it.
He is turned into a hideous beast, and his court all household items. So they will stay until their master can learn to love.
Years later, in the town at the foot of the hill, a young girl named Belle (Emma Watson) is the misfit of her town. While other girls her age pine for marriage, she seeks independence. While others slave over the washing, she invents ways of doing chores faster. While others in town drink and gossip, she only has eyes for the pages of her books…and her loving father (Kevin Klein).
When her father takes his wares to sell, his wagon gets lost on the road. After surviving a wolf attack, he seeks refuge in an isolated castle that seems largely abandoned…but for the roaring fire in the hearth. Inside, he meets what has become of the court; Lumiere, now a candelabra (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth, now a clock (Ian McKellan), Mrs. Potts, now a teapot (Emma Thompson)…and the furry and frightening lord of the manor. The Beast doesn’t take kindly to strangers – especially ones who help themselves to roses growing in his garden, so Belle’s father becomes his prisoner.
After fighting off advances from the beefy and smarmy Gaston (Luke Evans), Belle is alerted to her father’s disappearance. When she makes her way to the castle to search for him, she bargains with The Beast to take his place instead.
The Beast agrees, sends father on his way, and holds Belle in his place. The court sees this unfold and wonders aloud if she might be the one to teach their master to love and break the curse?
But who could ever love a beast?
Even though the film is being remade from the same studio that gave the world an animated classic twenty-six years ago, we shouldn’t expect this film to be any sort of shot-for-shot remake. Instead, the goal should be to adapt: to take the core conceit of the story, weave in what has worked on the animated screen and the broadway stage, add new ideas that compliment them all, and come away with a tapestry that brings together the best elements of everything.
That was the artistic bar BEAUTY AND THE BEAST needed to clear. I wish I could say that it cleared it. I wish I could say it even came close.
Gene Kelly used to talk about how his musical numbers were a cine-dance. He didn’t choreograph the movements for a stage, but instead mapped out movements of the camera in relation to movements of the characters. It’s one of the greatest advantages film has over a Broadway stage, since it allows the audience to become even more immersed in a number.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has no idea what cine-dance is, and because of that, almost every musical number feels lacking, off-rhythm, and cold. Shot after shot seems to begin just a bit too early, and often the movement of the camera (if there is any) doesn’t seem to follow the flow of the song. This leads to a lack of momentum in “Belle”, a lack of spectacle in “Be Our Guest”, and a lack of romance in “Beauty and The Beast”.
That final song is the one point of comparison I will make to the original film. Back in 1991, one of the touchstone moments of the animated classic came during this song when the shot hovered above the chandeliers in that grande ballroom, then swept and spiralled down gracefully around our waltzing couple. It was stunning, it was romantic, it gave the entire scene a heartfelt lift that anyone who has ever danced with a new love has felt deep inside.
The filmmakers of this movie don’t understand such visual language, or maybe never danced with anyone they loved.
In this movie, the cameras keep holding back…never wanting to crowd our heroes, but instead showing off the very expensive looking ballroom they inhabit. When the shot does climb up into the rafters, it never descends…instead remaining high above the fray.
The characters waltz with each-other, but never waltz with the camera. The difference is that we watch them fall in love with each-other, but we get swept into that love and never get to share in it.
Then there’s the design of The Beast himself. The key to this character is supposed to be his eyes; they are the window into his sadness and isolation…the “window to his soul” as the saying goes. The torture of all those years should be alive in his irises; his desire to love and protect clear in the catchlights. In this movie though, Beast’s eyes are almost always hidden behind a very heavy brow. Shadows and make-up rob the character of expressing love and loyalty with a glance, and as-such, he comes off cold. We can’t see what Belle sees and are left wondering “Who could ever love a beast?”.
Making this move so much worse? The human actor under that make-up has massive, expressive eyes. Inability to capture the emotion in them takes a special brand of ineptitude.
When you put such details together, what we’re left with is a film that feels like it has no heart. Only a film with no heart would want to “kill” characters moments before we all know they will be revived. Only a film with no heart would want to bring a character back to the scene of their parent’s demise to witness the death. Only a film with no heart would force a character to sing badly about how saddened he is to be letting love go…rather than just let us watch his face and body language as he heartbreakingly lets love go.
There are so many more problems with this film – problems that go beyond nitpicking. But even thinking about them exhaust me, so high is the number.
I have never considered myself a purist – the sort who feels like stories cannot or should not be retold or remade. What’s more, I certainly don’t feel that about this particular story. I want it to be retold and remade so that current and future generations can witness similar spectacle, and come away with similar feelings of awe.
But when it comes to retelling and remaking, there needs to be special attention paid to intention and craft – and those are two details that are sorely missing in this film. The craft of this film feels like it lacked vision. The characters were lively, but there wasn’t enough time to create enough of them…the music was lovely, but nobody knew how to sing it quite right….The castle was built, but no one knew how to film inside it.
All of those flaws get papered-over with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. Disney counted on that as their cheat, as if during production meetings any shortcomings were covered with “Don’t worry – they’ll be too caught-up remembering their childhood to notice that the wolves don’t seem that scary”. One or two shortcomings? Okay, “things happen”. Bad decision after bad decision, after bad decision? The filmmakers just didn’t care…or didn’t notice…or both.
Which brings us to intent. This movie doesn’t exist to employ new techniques, find new subtext, or re-imagine the fairy tale for a new generation.
This film’s sole intent is to milk a known brand for a lot of money. To that end only, this film succeeds.