Sunday, 16 April 2017

REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

I don't have a problem with remakes. Remakes are a time-honoured Hollywood tradition. Even straight, shot-for-shot remakes weren't uncommon in the golden days of film. It wasn't unusual for a successful film to be remade with a bigger budget, either with the same cast or a more star-studded one, and then rereleased to rake in even more money. Stage plays were frequently adapted to film, older movies were revamped for the age of colour, and once television became the entertainment behemoth of the twentieth century, TV films were reshot for cinema. By the seventies, even sitcoms were being remade virtually shot-for-shot for film. 

There is, however, the risk of alienating the very people who loved the original. We can become very attached to our favourite films, and take them more seriously than they were ever intended. Beauty and the Beast is, of course, an adaptation of La Belle et la Bete, a gothic fairytale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve way back in 1740. There were doubtless outcries from purists when her original novel was rewritten to be more child-friendly in the 1750s and again in the 19th century. Even then, Barbot's novel was based on traditional folk tales dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Still, there's something about that romantic, cutesified Disney Classic from 1991 that's never been beaten. I was initially reluctant to go see a new, live-action version, particularly after the disappointment that were Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent

I'm happy to say that Beauty and the Beast was a huge success. It recreates the animated original just enough to hit the same highs but adds enough to make it something new. I still prefer the original, but the live action version is a very enjoyable film in its own right. It's absolutely gorgeous, with wonderful locations, sets and CG animation. (Live action might be an exaggeration for this film, considering about a quarter of the characters are CG.) There was a risk that the songs would come across as disappointing cover versions, but there's a pleasant feel of a stage musical to the big numbers. 

The cast are generally pretty fine. Luke Evans is probably the best as Gaston, managing to make him genuinely quite likeable, at least until he becomes a murderous psycho. Josh Gad is hugely entertaining as LeFou. Keven Kline is perfect as Maurice, rewritten as a highly skilled and engaging artisan, rather than the senile old man of the original (it's harder to see why he's so quickly written off as a nutter in this version). The enchanted objects are all pretty good, although Ewan MacGregor's French accent is, somehow, slightly worse than his attempt at Alec Guinness in the Star Wars prequels.  (Why are Lumiere and Plumette the only ones with French accents?) I love Stanley Tucci's new character, Cadenza, the harpsichord. 

Dan Stevens and Emma Watson are both fine. There's nothing wrong with either of their performances, but neither do they light up the screen. They're likeable and they work well together, but they're probably the least interesting members of the cast. Looks-wise, the Beast is a little more human in this version, which is sensible if we're dealing with a more realistic design than a cartoon, but he still looks better before his regeneration. (You don't think that's a regeneration? Watch it alongside an equivalent scene on Doctor Who, and tell me where RTD got his ideas from.) At least Belle lampshades this (but then , these days, every guy has to have a beard.) The iconic scenes are recreated, but the most memorable, the ballroom scene set to the song "Beauty and the Beast," just doesn't compare. For a start, yellow just isn't Emma Watson's colour.

I'm not particularly keen on any of the new songs, although at least the Beast gets his own number this time round, which was something that in retrospect was sorely missing from the original. Gaston's song is possibly even better this time round, if that's actually possible (it uses a slightly different set of lyrics from an earlier draft of the original script). I do like the extra backstory for the characters (with the exception of the Beast's, who was better off just being a shallow arsehole). Belle and Maurice have some family history, and we find out why Belle's mother isn't around. Gaston isn't beloved just because he's handsome and barge-sized, he's an actual war hero. LeFou is an actual character, not just comic relief. The enchanted objects have some humanity behind them. It's additions like this that make it a little deeper, and that's exactly the kind of changes that benefit the film.

One character who is developed is the Enchantress, who actually becomes a character here rather than just part of the film's own backstory. She's revealed as Agathe, an impoverished old woman in Belle's village who displays compassion towards Maurice - the compassion that the prince so lacked. She's a deeper version of the original Enchantress, but she's still a vindictive old witch. While her cursing of the prince is given more reasoning in this version, it's still viciously capricious, especially as she seems even more powerful here. She rocks up at his castle in the middle of a party looking for shelter, when all the while she has power over the elements and the ability to zap herself wherever she wants. Bloody witch is looking for trouble. Then she turns the prince into a buffalo, all his staff into furnishings even though they've done nothing wrong at all, splits up a community and devastates an ecosystem. Maybe they'll do a sequel where they burn her.

Both versions of Beauty and the Beast are gorgeous, and they both have the same story issues. Even more of Belle's desire to leave her provincial life and explore the world are made in the new version, and still she settles down with a rich guy in a big house up the road. Still, the French Revolution will be along soon, so let's hope they don't have puppies.

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