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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Maleficent (***1/2) True love falls from trees

Maleficent

Maleficent – 2014

Director Robert Stromberg
Starring Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville
Screenplay by Linda Woolverton based on Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault

 While watching Angelia Jolie’s re-imagining of Maleficent, part of me is amazed at the myriad ways one is allowed to see beyond what is really Disney’s most incomplete Princess story.. Almost at the same moment, one can’t help but to want to scream out at the very thought that they have turned the tale into yet another diatribe about how humans destroy everything good world, even the mystical fairy who only wanted to keep everything – you know it – green.

The movie is entertaining. There is a beautiful clarity to everything at first. We get to see the young titular hero / villain wandering the good part of the woods, enjoying all the cute little beings who live peacefully…until a boy happens by looking for treasure. She talks to him a bit, convinces him to give up his ill-gotten loot. Then, after finding out that lead is her weakness, he discards his lead ring immediately. What a nice little boy.

That boy, though, grows into Sharlto Copley who, as the future King Stefan, betrays Maleficent (Jolie). I have seen Copely in three films so far and he’s played nutjobs in all three. This time he holds it together for about 30 minutes. That’s long enough for him to have a daughter and Maleficent to swear her revenge. Much of what took place in the original animated film happens here. Somewhere between when she goes into hiding and the fairies start taking care of her, young Aurora (Fanning) wins over Maleficent’s heart.

From here the film goes every which way but where we expect. There still is a young prince on a quest, and the three fairies still try to help. There is still a wall of briers. There still is a dragon. There’s still a dark kingdom. That’s where the similarities end.

The choices made, while kind of amusing, fit right in line with anyone who understands the person playing the main character. There is no real strong love for the source material, so it matters not that they tweaked it a little. The world needs more female heroes, too, so that she turns for the good isn’t a huge concern either. Fanning is a beautiful girl who can portray joy like no other. Much of this is good. Little of this is great.

As with many of the Disney animated features that are remade in live action, this looks like a cartoon with people much of the time. It’s not ridiculous like Tim Burton would do. Thank goodness he turned it down, else wise it might have been unwatchable. It’s bad enough to see Jolie’s digitally enhanced cheeks. Then again, those could be real. Most of the last 20 minutes is goofy, crammed with “how can we make the hero look good moments.” They go so far a to have the antagonist fall from a great height after being given one last chance. After the last battle, the sheen upon the screen is as bad as the glow around Robert Redford on Indecent Proposal. The definition of true love’s kiss may have been original when they wrote it, but someone should have talked to someone at headquarters.

Still, this movie has enough going for it to say give it a shot. While never looking forward to seeing her, Jolie is rarely unwatchable (The Tourist aside). Sam Riley is good as one of those characters that one wishes would get the girl. The script has way more going on than the original, but that is definitely not saying much. Give it a shot and you will be disappointed, but not that disappointed.

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