Friday, March 17, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: Stick to the original

Beauty and the Beast (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for fantasy violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.17.17

This is a curious beast.

Try as she might, Belle (Emma Watson) cannot dissuade Gaston (Luke Evans) from
attempting to win her hand in marriage. Sadly, this dynamic will become quite
uncomfortable, once Gaston becomes vengeful.
Every frame of director Bill Condon’s film looks terrific. Sarah Greenwood’s production design is breathtaking, from the gingerbread quaintness of Belle’s adorable town of Villeneuve; to the Lovecraftian opulence of the Beast’s labyrinthine castle, with all of its brooding corridors and shambling minarets; to the darkly spooky, wintry forest that separates the two.

Visual effects producer Steve Gaub seamlessly integrates the live-action characters with their enchanted comrades, and the voice acting is superlative: Ewan McGregor as the ever-gracious candelabra, Lumière; Emma Thompson as the kindly teapot, Mrs. Potts; Ian McKellen as the blustery mantel clock, Cogsworth; Stanley Tucci as the defiant harpsichord, Maestro Cadenza; Audra McDonald as the operatic, overly enthusiastic wardrobe, Madame de Garderobe; and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the coquettish feather-duster, Plumette.

The primary characters are equally well cast, their performances admirably suited to the story’s fairy-tale atmosphere. Luke Evans steals the show as the arrogant, boorish Gaston, determined to wed Belle by any means necessary; the always impish Josh Gad — apparently Disney’s new secret weapon — gets all the best lines as Gaston’s snarky sidekick, LeFou.

Kevin Kline is sublime as Belle’s doting father, Maurice: a role that easily could slide into cliché, with all of the aging gentleman’s quirks, eccentricities and easily flustered nature. But Kline surmounts such stereotyping with a persuasive blend of dignity, devotion and vulnerability; he sets a new standard.

It’s difficult to determine how much credit Dan Stevens deserves, as the Beast, given that he’s completely concealed beneath Jenny Shircore’s extraordinary make-up. But we’re seeing plenty of evidence of Stevens’ extensive acting chops, on TV’s Legion, so I’m willing to believe that he deserves plaudits for the credibility of the Beast’s complex emotional swing. And Stevens certainly does a lot with his eyes and voice, giving us the very definition of a tragic, doomed character.

And then there’s Belle, the story’s anchor, played with pluck, sincerity and resourcefulness by Emma Watson. Belle is delightfully bookish and ingenuous as the story begins, and yet bold enough to reject Gaston to his face; Watson’s early scenes with Evans are marvelous, as Belle struggles to remain polite while her eyes convey utter disgust for this boastful creep.

Later, forced to remain in the castle alongside a horrific monster, Watson blends Belle’s understandable fright with genuine anger: How dare this Beast imprison her so, and expect her to obey his every snarling whim. Goodness, he’s no better than Gaston!

But of course the Beast is better, and Watson delicately handles Belle’s essential transformation, as she perceives the misleading nature of outwardly appearances. Gaston may be the hunkiest, most attractive man in Villeneuve, but he has the black heart of a true beast: as opposed to her host, whose grotesque exterior cannot fully conceal a remorseful soul who has learned — the hard way — that a little kindness goes a long way.

It all sounds perfect, right?

And yet ... and yet...

Condon isn’t one for subtlety, as demonstrated by previous films such as Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters and the final Twilight entries. He too frequently goes for thunderous, overwrought opulence, most notably during several of this story’s most famous production numbers. That might be appropriate for a stage production hoping to reach the back row of the third balcony, but it’s rather overwhelming in a film.

More damagingly, music supervisor Matt Sullivan’s orchestrations are way over the top, to the point that the symphonic bombast obscures the Howard Ashman lyrics that we love so much; this is particularly true of the songs “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest.” Music editor Robin Morrison deserves equal blame; the music/vocal mix is quite poor at times.

Then there’s the matter of pacing.

The original 1991 film, while definitely a musical, got by with a modest half a dozen Ashman/Alan Menken songs: each one eminently hummable and lyrically ingenious. They were more than enough for an animated film that ran an economical and just-right 84 minutes. But a full-length stage production needed more, so Menken supplemented those six songs with a seventh that had been cut from the film, and then wrote another six in collaboration with new lyricist Tim Rice. (Ashman died shortly after completing work on the animated film.)

The result obviously worked on Broadway, where the show ran for 5,461 performances between 1994 and 2007.

But just as a stage play has requirements that distinguish it from an animated film, a live-action film demands an approach that differs from a stage musical. No surprise, then, that Condon dropped several of the Broadway add-ons ... but he also added three more Ashman/Rice songs written specifically for this live-action film. (How many musical scores have evolved in such a complicated manner?)

The final tally — it’s actually hard to keep track — finds 11 songs in this new film, but that’s deceptive; three of them are heard twice ... and three are heard yet again, during the voluminous end credits.

It’s too much music. The film drags, particularly during the second half, and the 129-minute running time begins to feel self-indulgent. By the time Stevens delivers the Beast’s third-act lament — “Evermore” — we’re definitely thinking nevermore.

A post-climax epilogue feels particularly superfluous. Many things were perfect back in 1991, thank you very much; pacing was high on that list.

Additionally, while Watson is a grand choice for her role’s dramatic scenes, the same cannot be said for her singing. Her playful, tentative delivery is fine — and in character — for gentler songs such as “Days in the Sun” and “Something There.” But the character is introduced, as the film opens, with the song named after her: a knock-the-house-down belter that Paige O’Hara delivered with gusto in the animated film ... and which Watson cannot begin to duplicate here. More’s the pity.

That song’s staging still is delightful, as we meet so many of Villeneuve’s residents, with Tobias A. Schliessler’s camera deftly tracking through the town’s streets and central square. And, no question, the sizable chorus does much to enhance the song’s charm and enthusiasm. But many of the key lyrics are Watson’s alone, and ... well ... the result lacks the original film’s pizzazz.

(Must this be an ongoing broken record? La La Land might have won that Oscar for Best Picture, had all concerned hired two stars who could sing and dance with gusto.)

There are moments, as well, when Condon fails to maintain the essential dramatic bridge that separates his actors from their SFX comrades. “Be Our Guest” is staged with Belle sitting at one end of a large table, where she is regaled by Lumière, Mrs. Potts and all the enchanted dining implements. Unfortunately, Watson isn’t really involved with the scene; she frequently looks like a deer in the headlights, uncertain where to glance, and showing little of the amazed delight that one would expect.

Such lapses aside, there’s no denying the film’s core theatrical energy, and its ability to suck us into the narrative. We’re fully invested in the relationship between Belle and her father — Kline providing so much poignant sensitivity — and only viewers made of stone could fail to be moved by the climactic finale (even if Condon milks it too much).

Then, too, there’s no doubt that Disney’s legion of fans — particularly those obsessed with “princess power” — will find no fault with this film. Goodness, they’d probably be delighted if it ran even longer.

But I suspect that many of us, with such fond memories of the 1991 classic, will feel compelled to return to it, after having seen this live-action update. In order to once again see the story done right.

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