Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Dir. Bill Condon. Starring Emma Watson, Ewan McGregor, Dan Stevens

Since the movie has opened recently, an obligatory “spoilers.” Also, a shameless plug: I’ve written about the 1991 animated version with a special emphasis on that film’s symbolic use of color. You can find that here.

The Beast (Stevens) reaches down and picks up an unusual mask. It’s a plague doctor’s mask, he says, and hands it to Belle. We have already been tossed out of the Beast’s castle by a magical book the Enchantress left him when he and his household were transformed, but now we are tossed out of the timeline, too. A younger version of Maurice looks on at his wife, who is in bed with just enough boils to signify that it’s plague. Maurice must take his infant daughter away now or sign both their death warrants as well. As addendum to the plot, it’s very nearly irrelevant. Yet I found myself fascinated by this five-minute segment of the film, because it was so new. It’s something of a running gag that the leading ladies of the Disney Renaissance, from Ariel to Jasmine to Pocahontas, are daughters of single fathers; this new Beauty and the Beast offers a reason why Maurice has to raise her alone, and on top of that why Kevin Kline plays Maurice as a dry, somber old artist rather than relying on the kooky pile of flesh from the 1991 animated film. (Kline more or less mails this one in, perhaps understanding that all the filmmakers needed was Kevin Kline in a pre-French Rev costume.) Our understanding of why this Maurice is a mechanically-inclined artist, not an outright inventor, finds its legs here as well. Early in the film, Maurice is putting the finishing touches on a beautiful little windmill in which small figurines – a woman holding her child, a painter working on a portrait of the two together –  are set. (I shot my bolt for The Art of Painting too soon! I wasted it on Mulholland Dr.) As he talks to Belle, the shots of him at the table don’t separate him from his windmill; the blades continue to thwack in front of his face. Perhaps he is being buffeted by a place which we come to understand as his own haunting past, or the place itself has come to obscure the man. Certainly there is something be said from a psychoanalytic perspective about an individual who spends his time recreating an event from just weeks, days before a tragedy, but who doesn’t touch the actual tragedy himself in his work. Once again, it’s a little change, but an interesting one which raises more questions than it answers, and one which engrossed me as a viewer.

Sadly, Beauty and the Beast does not indulge in many of these changes. With the exception of this backstory, the addition of a minor character (Stanley Tucci’s harpsichord, Maestro Cadenza), and LeFou’s switched allegiance, very little is different from what you remember. Perhaps the biggest difference is in the Beast’s mien, who goes from VERY LOUD to pussycat pretty swiftly in the ’91 movie and in this one adds a “sarcastic humor” stage in between the two. I can appreciate why Disney is throwing us a new “live-action” version of an animated movie every year, and I can appreciate why people will go see them. Yet it seems to me that a fairy tale, even a Bush-41 fairy tale, is the perfect place to alter an audience’s expectations, to allow their familiarity with the text to bolster a new, aggressive retelling in the same way that familiar stories are a great way to introduce older readers to difficult concepts. If the comprehension of the story is no obstacle, then the reader’s ability to dig into more advanced study is unimpeded. Beauty and the Beast is, from at least one perspective, a horror story about a woman caged with an impetuous and unpredictable monster. Or it can be understood as a pre-French Revolution story of the tyranny of the rich against the Third Estate. As it is in the 1946 Cocteau version, which stands alone among all interpretations of the tale, Belle’s father is imprisoned for taking a rose from the Beast’s garden; a life’s imprisonment for a single rose is, even by the standards of the American justice system I’m accustomed to, a little harsh. (“In Beauty and the Beast 4, see how Belle’s grandchildren use the power of an enchanted castle to avoid being taken to the guillotine!”) In America, it’s difficult not to see a town full of white townspeople (absent some touches of rainbow casting, although that focus is mostly in the castle) rising up to lynch the character who has won the affection of a white woman as a fable about race. “But it’s a Disney movie!” I can hear you saying. “They have a budget to make back!” My response: It’s a Disney movie. They can afford to take a chance. In our cinema, even in our money-grubbing popular cinema, we must not be content with the easiest solutions.

Watson, who has been playing Belle since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is the perfect alignment of star image and role; given her history in playing in front of CGI, even some of her more technical acting background is a fit. Yet she seems awkward carrying a scene as the only living thing in it. The filmmakers – and this is not her fault – opted for vast landscape shots created from CGI. The “Something There” scene, which takes place in the fullness of a winter setting, is obviously from a computer. The Beast is obviously from a computer (with the help of motion capture, but from a computer). Poor Emma Watson, who has to act not just like Belle but like Belle who can appreciate the magnificent snowswept grounds of a Chateauesque castle which looks like the Biltmore under a curse, simply does not have the presence to make us believe with her. If this were a movie which didn’t need dialogue or songs so much, I think she would be a better fit for the role. The squint, the concerned eyebrows, the shy laugh that we all came to know, tease, and enjoy from the Potter films are still here, but they aren’t even distractions; they are the expressions of a teenager, which Watson certainly isn’t anymore but Belle is. They work. The singing doesn’t, and not even because I grew up on Paige O’Hara and Susan Egan but because they have so baldly put her voice through a computer. (We have got to stop putting people through a computer when they sing in the movies. We have got to be unafraid to dub people when they sing in the movies. Nobody’s review of West Side Story is, ‘The movie would have been perfect if they let Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood sing.’) If you liked Belle in the ’91 version, then Watson in the ’17 version will strike your fancy as well. As much as Belle has been propped up as “the smart one” because she likes to read, in many ways she has less personality than her Disney Renaissance peers. Of the other acting performances, there’s not much to say other than whatever else has been said about that actor’s image/type in the past. Whatever words you have for “Ewan McGregor” or “Ian McKellen” or “Gugu Mbatha-Raw,” and especially for “Emma Thompson,” will do just fine here.

The film is sumptuous, though I would draw the line at beautiful. The ’17 Beauty and the Beast is more invested in ensuring that the sets and individuals are opulent than meaningful than anything else; the blue and gold of the “Beauty and the Beast” scene are foregrounded through most of the movie, with shimmering golds and bright (but masculine!) blues on the stairways and in the shadows. The effect is attractive, but the audience has seen too much CGI to be wowed by it anymore. “Be Our Guest” is dizzying and colorful (and McGregor, as is his style when he hits those high notes, wavers for a quarter-second and then comes back with a higher and stronger note – I love it so much), but never a spectacle. “Something There” we’ve covered, and it is the biggest offender. Even the final scenes in the rain, where the Beast faces off against Gaston, lack the scare factor and Expressionist influence that would make the CGI worthwhile. In short, this movie will hardly waste your time, and yet it feels like going to dinner and still being hungry after the check.

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