Beauty and the Beast: Old and new it stands out of time…

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Beauty and the Beast – 2017, 1991

Directors: Bill Condon (2017) and Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise (1991)
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos (2017) and Linda Woolverton (1991) based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Starring:  Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson (2017) and Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti (1991)

Disney has been remaking their animated classics for so long now, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t. I think it may have started with 101 Dalmatians but in all honesty most of them are not good enough for me to go back and research. Over the last few years, the most notable have been their attempts to put women on the screen as real life princesses or (in Angelina Jolie’s case) should have beens. The one that everyone will talk about and remember has just arrived.

Everyone’s real hero of the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger (no one wants to imagine she really married the doof who shall not be named) is now as likely and deservedly remembered as Belle. Although not being considered a singer before being cast in this musical, Emma Watson creates her own version of the role that Paige O’Hara mastered a generation ago.

The question of whether the movie update is necessary is immaterial at this point. A more pointed question would involve a contemplation on whether or not live action should include as much if not more animation than the original animated film. I am not going to discuss that either, though. I am really just here to celebrate both films, since, miracle of miracles, they both turned out to be pretty great.

To do this, I am just going to discuss the elements of each film that stand out more for me than the other. At this point, can we really review a film that everyone will see and love…except for those who insist on pointing out flaws. Well, I will try, but it will all feel like quibbling when I throw criticism to the side and just say it is a classic despite them.

First thing is first. What parts of the new film are not as good?

  1. The first time we see Belle’s village: For a second, I got a sickening feeling. Everything seems so close and claustrophobic, it felt like I was watching the recent redo of The Smurfs. There is no feeling of span in the town and it feels like Belle is walking in a really tight circle. The empty bookstore feels bigger than the whole confines of the village.
  2. Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury as Lumiere and Mrs. Potts can’t be beat: It is a personal preference, as McGregor and Thompson do well in the same roles. To McGregor’s credit, he just moved forward with his much less distinctive voice and personality. While it isn’t as memorable, it works. Orbach completely mastered the role, though, making Lumiere seem older and more virile at once. Thompson is a blander version of a character one would normally consider to be quite bland. No one ever made us sit down, make ourselves comfortable and have some tea like Lansbury.
  3. The ballroom scene. Especially true after the remastered version of the original pumped it up about 200%, there is just no beating the myriad colors and sweeping grandeur of the original. It’s one of the great animated scenes in cinematic history.
  4. I just wish they would not have cast Stanley Tucci. It’s so tiring to see him in every movie, even when they give him bad teeth to inhabit.

So what was made better in the new film? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

  1. LeFou: Gad is an inspired casting choice. His nuanced performance works in every way possible. The original was barely a placeholder for Gaston, to the point where I wondered why he was even included in such a large musical number. This time around, the character is fully fleshed out, an improvement in every way. The only time it doesn’t fit is when the residual lines from the original make it necessary to have him be somewhat illiterate and ill-informed. It is quite likely the LeFou has read most of the same books as Belle.
  2. Maurice: Good Lord I hated Belle’s dad in the original. I would have thrown him in the loony bin or old folks home right off the bat if I had to listen to his babbling. Totally moronic and typical Disney Dad, with his head in the clouds while missing every possible thing on the ground. He even thinks she should hook up with Gaston. Kline presents a slightly preoccupied, but deeply saddened man. He is completely aware of his daughter and he wants to protect her from the horrors he’s experienced, while showing her the beauty he sees in life. It’s completely understandable how they could be related in this version of the tale. She enjoys the same things he does, with her own spin. Incredible that Disney finally gets a Dad right, for once.
  3. The night-time trip to Paris: This adds a completely new dimension to Belle, her father and heretofore absent mother. This scene has a great song (How Does a Moment Last Forever) and in its inclusion, we allow a moment of true bonding between Belle and the Beast. This is the kind of scene upon which romances are built and it makes what follows all the more meaningful.
  4. Letting Belle get plastered by the snowball: It was always a little weak to have Beast hoisted by his own petard in the original.

To delve any deeper, you really have to just accept the differences between these two as just trades for each medium. Human Again (from the restored version) is traded for Evermore. The wardrobe is now an opera singer instead of a maid. My eldest noticed that Philippe was a different sort of horse. The library is remarkable either way. Gaston is as delightfully deplorable now as he was in animated form. Alan Menken is a treasure. I don’t know how he keeps drawing classics from this well.

It would be unfair to not recognize Watson’s achievement. Paige O’Hara has created, in all truth, the best Disney Princess. Instantly memorable for her pluck and her voice, all other Princesses have yet to reach the bar she set. Watson wisely avoids the pitfall of trying to match O’Hara’s voice and instead applies her own spin on the character. The songs and her performance are equally good and entirely different. I found myself hearing her voice in my head for songs that I have heard for a quarter century with O’Hara’s. She’s elevated the live action princess role that Amy Adams created so effortlessly and placed her own stamp on cinematic history, between this and Potter.

Dan Stevens is a little old, even for a 27-year-old Watson, but the role works, especially if one considers the time passing under a spell. It’s close enough and not yet creepy. His voice in Evermore is remarkable and nearly worth the price of admission on its own.

Celebrate these films. They are gifts to humanity. There have always been beauties who were drawn to beasts that they had to learn to understand. There have always been beasts who are society’s winners that smart girls know to avoid, too. This film has brought hope to many a bookworm girl and boy that they will someday meet and learn to accept one another. And grow. Everyone wants to feel like they can do that.

Both films (***** out of *****)

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Darling Companion: Woof.

Darling Companion – 2012

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Starring Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, Elisabeth Moss, Sam Shepard, Richard Jenkins, Dianne Wiest, Mark Duplass
Written by Lawrence & Meg Kasdan

What the hell is this?  Lawrence Kasdan at one time, was one of the best talents in Hollywood.  The Empire Strikes Back, the better half of Return of the Jedi, Body Heat, The Accidental Tourist and Silverado all received the benefit of his attention.  I will even throw in The Big Chill.  Things got a little looser, whimsical and downright stupid in the ensuing years, reaching a low point with The Bodyguard and French Kiss.  The movies became less frequent, and the successes smaller and smaller.  9 years passed between his last bomb, Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, and this most repellent of ventures.

So what, indeed, happened here?  This story seems like the story someone would tell years after they gained riches, living like Larry David, and think that they have a relatable story to tell.  Unlike Larry David, however, Lawrence has lost his touch with what makes things appeal to us common folk.  David knows that his life is absurd, and the only enjoyment we get out of seeing him in his big houses and golf course ventures is in seeing that he is still miserable, usually by his own doings.

Kasdan’s tale about a dog that is found, lost and found again loses its appeal the moment we see that this Doctor (Kline) and his stay at home wife (Keaton) hold the wedding for their second child (Moss) at their second resort home in Utah.  The wife is suffering empty nest syndrome, upset that her husband has to perform surgery once in a while.  So she finds a dog off of a freeway, choosing to name him “Freeway” and lavishes much attention on the dog.  Then the husband loses the dog.  And we get to spend the rest of the movie postponing the end of their resort time while listening to a Gypsy’s (Zurer) bull crap visions about where the dog might be.  Did I mention that the Gypsy is hot, available and in the sights of the couple’s physician nephew (Duplass)?  Oh, well, never mind.

Also along the way, we have the younger doctor’s mother, Penny (Wiest) and her new boyfriend, Russell (Jenkins).  Russell is a nice guy, who has a dream for the couple that he is seeking investors for.  Surface doubts are endlessly beaten down by kindness and repeated offers to help.  Woohoo.

There is absolutely nothing going on here worth anything to the average film goer.  One could give two craps about the softly played drama with a few attempted gentle laughs here and there.  Thing is, I think Kasdan believes he is onto something here, working out the issues between the middle-aged couple who are experiencing, at worst, boredom.  Make that boredom in nice houses and second houses.  The dog doesn’t stand a chance in this story.

A lot of good actors and actresses suffer a similar fate.  Kline all but disappears, occasionally sniping back at his wife’s frequent complaints.  Keaton is in some sort of manic mode.  Going from distraught over her children leaving, to distraught over the dog running off, distraught over her husband’s inability to be available at all times, and then grateful for her husband’s attempts, to the point of being completely willing to move on the next day.  Yeah, that’s relatable.

Jenkins, Wiest and Shepard are only there to be likable versions of their normal characters.  Everyone else is forgettable.

I rented this movie, in large part, because it had a dog in it.  My kids wanted to watch it too, but they were mystified that the dog was gone from about minute 25 until just before the credits rolled.  The reason they lasted so long is no doubt due to the fact that the characters seemed like adult versions of the Disney sitcom characters they see every day on Good Luck Charlie, Shake It Up or Zack and Cody: Suite Life on Deck.  And by adult, I mean not adult.

At this point in his life, Kasdan just wants to tell us that he lives comfortably and he and his wife (and co-writer) have the occasional quibble.  Gee, thanks.  This is probably very resonant with their friends in the same tax bracket.  Now I need to get back to my day job.

(*1/2 out of *****)