Friday, March 24, 2017

'Beauty and the Beast' Review: Magic and Wonder for a New Generation


Four Star Rating: ***½

Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, Josh Gad
Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Source Material: Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and Beauty and the Beast (1991) movie
Cinematographer: Tobias A. Schliessler
Editor: Virginia Katz
Composer: Alan Menken
Genre: Fantasy, Romance
Rated: PG - violence, frightening scenes
Release Date: March 17, 2017
Run Time: 129 minutes

It is always risky trying to remake an iconic movie that is embedded into pop culture and a cherished jewel among countless people. It is even more dangerous when the movie is part of one's childhood where nostalgia is often seen as a sacred idol that cannot be touched or it is forever desecrated. This is why Disney's initiative to create live-action remakes of their many animated classics seemed like a misguided cash grab. But not only have most of them turned out very good, but they've worked well as respectful works of nostalgia balanced with fresh story reworkings. We ended up with movies like the excellent The Jungle Book that dazzles with ground-breaking special effect while adding in a much more progressive message about respect and acceptance; Maleficent dares to make the witch sympathetic and a powerful feminist hero; and Cinderella keeps much of the classic fairy tale intact but with a protagonist that is independent and proactive. Beauty and the Beast continues the streak of well-crafted and gorgeous Disney live-action remakes, even though it is the most faithful of the recent adaptations.

If you cherish the 1991 classic, you are going to know most of the story beats, and you'll be wrapped in a comfort blanket of nostalgia with many familiar characters, songs, and scenes. It is still a story of Belle yearning for more than her provincial life and the villagers thinking her strange for always having her nose in a book. Gaston still wants her hand in marriage, largely because he deems her the most beautiful thus the greatest catch. Belle does get away from the village but in a way she did not intend when she is forced to live her life in a castle with the Beast, but things turn out much more differently than they first appear.

Even though a fan will be able to bounce along with the story and even recite a few scenes verbatim, the movie does make some noteworthy changes from the 1991 classic. This time around Belle's father Maurice (Kevin Kline) is imprisoned for taking a rose just like the in the original fairy tale, and this also helps make the Beast a bit more sympathetic early on as he has more justification. The Beast is also given a more thorough backstory that explains where some of his flaws came from and also shows why the servants were punished as well. On the backstory front, Belle's mom becomes a crucial figure to the narrative this time and you get the idea she defines much of Belle's personality even though she passed away when Belle was very young. Belle is also a much stronger  independent figure of feminisi, (though to be fair, she is one of the stronger-willed Disney princesses even before this version), as this time she is much more proactive in replacing her father and far more bold in standing up for herself -- Belle clearly decides her fate this time. We also get a few new songs including one sung by the Beast, and while this helps add some new flavour to the movie, it also probably ensures Disney a shot for a Best Original Song Oscar nomination. The movie cleans up a small plot holes from the original, explaining why the castle residents and the villagers don't seem to know about each other and thus creating a closer connection between the two. Though this final change along with the enchantress character are one of the more underdeveloped aspects of the movie and creates for some jarring moments at the climax.

One of the major things that really stands out is how well director Bill Condon and his special effects team capture the visual charm and magic of the animated original. I once believed the biggest advantage of an animated movie is the ability to create worlds and scenes that are impossible in reality, but Beauty and the Beast shows that cutting edge technology is defying that logic. The locations feel directly transported from a children's book or a fanciful dream, with the castle exuding a haunting and enchanting vibe while the village has a quaint but whimsical feel. There is a sense that they are both real but also from an alternate world where magic and wonder thrive. The team here is following the ground-breaking technology of Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book crew by proving CGI has gone to a level where it is a wrestling with wolves feat to discern what is a man-made construction and what has been done by team of special effect artists.

The inhabitants in the castle are even more astounding in their realism. The Beast has a wide range of facial expressions that convey his different emotions and internal battles. It is easy to relate to this Beast and understand why Belle is drawn to him, because you sense a true human under that fur and fangs. All the walking furniture and dishes look like real objects that just happen to be able to talk and walk. It is such a remarkable achievement that this exact movie  couldn't have even been made two years ago. There also has to be credit given to some great voice work with Dan Stevens creating a much more nuanced Beast this time, Ewan McGregor clearly having a ball as Lumiere, and Ian McKellan playing the great straight man as Cogsworth.

Beauty and the Beast is one of the most gorgeous and meticulously constructed spectacles of the past several years. Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler amplifies the special effects by shooting a crisp and captivating world with a vibrant colour palate. It is this top notch work that makes this one of the few movies where the 3D is more than an excuse to raise prices, but actually adds to the wonder and scope. Editor Virginia Katz also needs special mention as many of her edits and scene transitions help to tell the story and set the mood of the tale. Her professionally done cuts and edits raise the tension, and the big scenes have a sense of raised stakes. In a case of balancing between nostalgia and crafting something new, Alan Menken returns with not only the original score but also enchanting us with some fresh songs and instrumentals.

As much as I praise the amazing technical aspect, the real star of the production is Emma Watson who is magnetic and intoxicating as Belle who conveys a great inner strength but also creates a natural and authentic human being you care about. She has a grace and poise that makes it obvious how she became the centre of a love triangle between Beast and Gaston. You follow her through her emotional journey of despising the Beast to feeling empathy to being torn over the choices she faces, and like every great actor, you don't need expository dialogue to know what she is thinking, it is all in her facials and mannerisms. It is an award-worthy performance and a declaration she is one of the top notch performers in Hollywood. She brings a stronger and more invigorating Belle, and her work is enough to keep you engaged in a well-worn tale.

She also is given some top notch support. I already praised some of the voice work, but Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette, Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, and Audra McDonald as Madame de Garderobe all give voice work that creates distinct and relatable personalities. Kline makes for a very different Maurice who this time isn't a bumbling eccentric inventor but rather a thoughtful and kind-hearted craftsman, and he plays a much more significant roles in shaping Belle. Gaston is one of the great Disney villains, and I have often criticized Luke Evans in the past but this time he proves his talent. He completely embodies the cocky hunter and seems to be having a blast. He creates a much more sinister and manipulative villain while also providing some fun in his musical numbers and scenery chewing.

The message of Beauty and the Beast has always been about not allowing prejudice to get in the way of love and seeing people for more than their outside appearance. This time around they further that message by not only having a racially diverse cast, but having loving mixed couples in Lumiere with Plummette and Garderobe married to Cadenza. This is another example of Disney actively being one of the more progressive movie studios in the last few years, and based off their reputation from past decades, it is something they should be applauded (they've come a long way since the happy to be a slave days of Song of the South). If diversity is this paragraph's topic, then it is really important to bring up the recent controversy over Disney's first gay character as depicted by Josh Gad's Lefou. After seeing the movie, it is pretty clear that those who are frothing and bellowing and protesting did not actually see what they are complaining about. The handling of Lefou as gay is really subtle and in my screening, Gad was a fantastic crowd pleaser. I don't think most kids will even catch the disputed moment without being told, and I'm pretty confident even the most conservative viewer should not be offended by the portrayal. Disney and the marketing team just should not have said anything. Or you know, people need to stop crusading against things that they don't even know anything about.

While I was watching Beauty and the Beast during my packed screening, I could sense the children were transfixed by what was dancing on the screen. This is a gentle and uplifting story about love and friendship painted with a stroke of spectacle and majestic wonder. The story may be one the adults know well and the subplots are undercooked, but none of that stops the wonder flowing from the screen. Every child in that auditorium seemed captivated, and this will be one of those movies many will guard as a cherished treasure of their childhood. For many kids, this one is already a classic.

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