Beauty and the Beast (2017): Pre-Movie Thoughts

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Oh don’t start with me, Total Film! “Darker, smarter,” and more relevant than the original? We’ll see!

But in all seriousness, I’m in a very awkward position here. While I like the original Disney’s Cinderella and genuinely believe that it gets more flack than it really deserves, I was very open to the 2015 live-action retelling. It plays with some elements of the original, fixing things here and setting them back over there, but it keeps with the spirit of the original animated features. We still probably didn’t need it, per say, but I’m perfectly happy with its existence, especially if I can mostly ignore Disney’s hardcore feminist detractors.

But this…this movie gives me some serious reservations.

On the one hand, you have Emma Watson, an awesome actress and all-around person. The film will also have Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson, who I tend to like, regardless of the overall quality of the films they appear in.

*cough cough*
*cough cough*

On the other hand, it’s a remake of one of my favorite Disney movies of all time, and one that made serious bank during the Disney Renaissance of the late 80’s and early 90’s. The story has its flaws, but some of that can be blamed on its roots as an old-school fairytale. It’s still gorgeously animated and well-paced, driven forward by surprisingly simple, but good characters and a writing team that knew just what to cut and cut from the source material to make it more dark and dramatic.

Does it need a remake? I think we can all let out a resounding “NO” to that one. But we’re getting one anyway, and it’s coming from a company that has a pretty high standard of quality, even in its worst flops…except Home on the Range, of course.

So will this new movie be good? Will it have anything to offer that its predecessor didn’t? I am cautiously optimistic, but here are my worries so far, aside from the obvious:

As usual, I have tried my best to ignore the trailers, even though I already know the basic story here. I’m sure the music will be similar, if not identical in most areas, and that’s alright. It is kind of lazy, hollow, and distinctly cash-grabby if you, like me, believe that the movie should be able to stand apart from the original, but whatever. I can look past that choice.

 

Unfortunately, I did catch at least one full trailer (the one featured above) while waiting to see Moana, and unless it was missing some serious context from the movie itself, some interesting, and potentially worrying choices have been made.

For example, it looks as though it is the Beast’s idea to have Belle take her father’s place.

…Why is this a potential problem? Well, think about it. Belle was motivated by desperation, sure, but the choice to have her suggest the trade-off is actually a really good, subtle character moment. It shows the lengths she is willing to go to save someone she cares about, and the fact that she holds to it, even after glimpsing the monstrous Beast in the light, shows real strength, love, and even agency on her part. She finds a way to take as much control of the situation as she can, even in a moment of such crushing defeat, which is yet another reason why I can’t stand the Stockholm Syndrome argument being regularly applied to her.

 

By making this development the Beast’s idea instead, as the new movie appears to, Belle becomes much more passive in that moment, and a very compelling part of her character is lost.

A friend of mine, who was in the theatre with me at the time I saw this trailer, drew my attention to something else. The way that Watson askes the Beast to come into the light is very different from O’Hara’s; the former sounds a lot more defiant and demanding, while the latter is more nervous and curious. It’s as if O’Hara’s Belle noticed something slightly off about this stranger through the darkness, or simply because he was deliberately only moving in the shadows.

Meanwhile, new Belle isn’t intimidated by this guy. She just wants to know who is talking to her.

At first glance, this might seem like it elevates Belle’s character back up, and perhaps it will. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with saying the same line differently. But now, think about the Beast. Even if you weren’t petrified of him, as I frequently was as a child, what is he supposed to be? What makes his change later in the story so compelling?

Could it be the fact that he’s…well, beastly?

beast-angry1 the-beast-is-scary-when-we-first-meet-him1 beauty_and_the_beast1

 

Think back to the scene in the original movie now. Or better yet, watch the clip I included above. Belle finds her father in a dungeon, only to be confronted by a booming voice from the shadows. Robbie Benson’s voice is mixed with that of growling, snarling animals in order to lend him some extra power and inhumanity, so even before Belle sees him, she trembles and stutters at the mere sound of the Beast.

It helps even more if he terrifies the audience as well, and that’s a lot easier to do with pencil and paper than it is with makeup and special effects. The licensed Disney stage musical has a bit of this problem as well, choosing to focus on the Beast’s more petulant side rather than his fear factor.

The only thing terrifying about this guy is his mediocre CG.
The only thing terrifying about this guy is his mediocre CG.

The Beast in the new movie sounds fairly human to me, and without seeing any of the rest of the scene where he and Belle meet in the dungeon, I already feel like his terrifying presence is diminished somewhat by this fragmented exchange. If he can’t successfully scare Belle or us, then in the back of our minds, he’s already not that bad.

Now, the Beast could still be every bit as huge and violent as he was in the original film, but a) that’s a major complaint from the politically-inclined anyway, so they should still complain about it in this film made in modern day, and b) it just won’t have the same weight, even if the actors seeing the Beast do their damndest to look afraid of him.

It also doesn’t help that Belle apparently finds the castle during the day, which tends to be far less dramatic than nighttime, even if the room itself casts shadows everywhere.

The point I am trying to make is this: little choices can make a big difference. However you feel about the healthiness of Belle and Beast’s relationship in the animated film, you must at least agree that the moments defining and developing their relationship are well-paced and well-chosen, even down to the tiniest, nearly subconscious details. That is what makes the original so wonderful…well, at least one of the things. It opened the Academy Awards up to the idea that an animated movie (a musical, at that) could be artistic and moving enough to stand beside its live-action cousins. After a long stretch or relegating animated fare to the “it’s just for kids” bin, Beauty and the Beast (1991) reminded us of its great potential.

The choices made by the new movie may ultimately work on their own, but as I said above, the very fact that the film makers are just porting the soundtrack over from the animated movie begs you to compare the two. At least the new Cinderella only briefly sang “Sing Sweet Nightingale” to herself while she was doing chores in a short scene. That was a cute little winky moment to the audience for anyone who liked the original and might be paying attention, and I appreciate that. It didn’t distract me from the movie I was watching and trying to get invested in.

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I really do hope that this new adaptation will be good, and not just a waste of time that uses strict branding to squeeze more money out of Disney’s vast fanbase. Emma Watson is a smart, beautiful woman, but at the end of the day, a job is a job and actors don’t get a lot of say in directorial choices, let alone the direction they themselves are given. I also really don’t want to see some half-assed retooling to please the social justice warriors. Some of Cinderella (2015) was like that, and I much prefer that if you’re going to change things like that, you should go big or go home (see Ever After: A Cinderella Story). Sure, it might be more abrasive to some people, but at least you’re obviously trying to make the story new, fresh, and most importantly, your own. I can respect the effort and commitment, if nothing else.

I’m starting to lean towards pessimism, but ultimately, time will tell. We’ll see the movie when it comes out, and then we’ll know for sure…

 

Update (3/21/17): Winner winner, chicken dinner. See my new review for more details, but yes…this was a bad one.

*None of the pictures in this post are owned by me.

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