Wednesday, June 21, 2017

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: Blu-ray (Disney/Mandeville 2017) Disney Home Video

In 1988, Oscars’ Master of Ceremonies, Chevy Chase took it upon himself to deviate from the scripted monologue to poke a bit of caustic fun at movie critics, suggesting all we ever do is spend two minutes dismantling two years of creative blood, sweat and tears put forth by hundreds of artisans; topping off his assessment with “…but never mind about the critics. Where would they be without us…we certainly know where we’d be without them!” Even so, it is times like these I feel a slight twinge more inclined to agree with Chase’s summation of our profession; as I am about to tear into director, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, a 2017 remake of the much beloved Disney animated and Oscar-nominated Best Picture from 1991. Condon’s movie is a more elaborate, yet oddly, not more accomplished one; a queasy amalgam of scenes excised almost verbatim, although inserted herein with far less finesse or even ‘animated’ integrity in performances given throughout; also, gleaning moments from the Broadway redux, and finally, lumbering about with more than a hint of creative license from screenwriters, Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. There is a bizarre disconnect working against the lithe and lyrical magic so effortlessly on display in the 1991 version; Tobias A. Schliessler’s gorgeous cinematography, finessing Sarah Greenwood’s as sumptuous production design, and deliberately glossy CGI, repeatedly sabotaged by Condon’s desire to dip the whole artistic mĂ©lange in a sort of faux gilding of political correctness.
God forbid we should have a story set in 1740 rural France and not cast a handful of non-Caucasians in non-essential token parts scattered throughout its backdrop, merely to be fair to Hollywood’s faux sanctimoniousness these days regarding ‘diversity’, if cruelly out of step with history itself and every previous movie incarnation made from the Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s classic fairy tale, including the 1991 version! Sorry folks, but if blacks were not allowed in the court of Louis XV via France’s Code Noir then I really do not see the point of pretending otherwise in a movie supposedly set in the same era. This is not my biggest pet peeve with this Beauty and the Beast: merely, one of many. And I should point out I feel the same way about listening to rap music inserted into Baz Luhrmann’s bastardized version of The Great Gatsby (2013) or suffering through an endless hit parade of pop music infecting virtually every frame of Sophia Coppola’s badly bungled reincarnation of Marie Antoinette (2007). Film makers: stay true to period – please! You do neither ‘diversity’ nor history any favors by rewriting it to suit this prevailing strain of diseased liberalism that has simultaneously professed tolerance even as it ruthlessly stamps out any opinion deviating from it, while sucking virtually all of the joy out of movies in general and going to the movies in particular. Our movie culture has increasingly become vacuous and antiseptic; something I cannot abide: a lot for the eyes, but precious little for either the heart or mind. And lest we observe that to illustrate intolerance – via tolerance for tolerance sake – is decidedly quite different from this all-pervading left wing determinist strain since indoctrinated the audience purely for politicized purposes that have little, if any genuine place in good solid storytelling.
But back to Condon and this version of Beauty and the Beast. Despite Herr Director’s claim to have re-envisioned the movie for ‘contemporary’ tastes, what he has actually done is to cobble together a rather awkward rendition from multiple aforementioned source materials, while veering almost tragically beyond the ingeniously structured scope of the author’s original work. Okay, we get it. Condon’s not particularly interested in Barbot de Villeneuve or 1740’s rural France. But he is also troubled by his adherence to the Disney animated legacy from whence his interpretation draws most of its strength and a good many of its shortcomings. Animation forgives a lot of structurally unsound narrative decisions, particularly when the cast includes such heavy hitters as Angela Lansbury, the late Jerry Orbach and David Ogden Stiers; a winsome and iconic vocal rendition of an as fetching female protagonist, voiced by newcomer, Paige O’Hara; a killer Howard Ashman/Alan Menken score, and…oh yes, that little sprinkle of pixie dust for which Disney in its prime under Walt’s tutelage and during their mid-eighties artistic renaissance (carrying over for nearly a decade thereafter) are best known and renown. This Beauty and the Beast packs on the A-list names: Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson, seconded to infuse ‘life’ into the beloved characters of Lumiere, Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts respectively. Yet, it paints each of these characterizations – concealed behind ornately achieved special effects – in a rather insincere light as garish and cartoony recreations of the former rather than as stand-alone flesh and blood derivatives that possess and can offer us something refreshing.
This Beauty and the Beast cannot stand on its own. It is a movie instead commenting on another made better before it; the ‘tale as old as time’ now much too old because the memory of its predecessor remains far-reaching and resilient against any trampling from this lackluster reboot. Chiefly disconcerting about this remake is Dan Stevens’ ‘Beast’ – forced to wear a rubberized grey suit and walk on elevated platform shoes to give his performance girth in the CGI domain. Alas, Stevens’ tortured soul is less ‘towering’; his one standout, the ballad, ‘Evermore’ effectively sung, but grotesquely marred by Condon’s inability to allow Stevens to simply stand still and remain in frame; Condon’s camera instead swirling around his largely CGI-concocted labyrinth of crumbling buttresses, gloomy towers and spiraling stairwells. There are, in fact, some affecting new songs to augment the original score; ‘Days in the Sun’ and ‘How Does a Moment Last Forever’ full of precisely the heart-tearing pathos of life’s never to be dulled mad inhuman noise. Tragically, it remains the handling of the more time-honored score that sinks the picture; Emma Thompson’s warbling of the title tune in no way coming close to rival the poignancy of Angela Lansbury’s iconic and sigh-inducing ballroom pas deux from the 1991 movie. As if he realizes he hasn’t a leg to stand on here, Condon repeatedly inserts pregnant pauses throughout the iconoclastic Menken/Ashman pantheon of songs, adding a fumbled dance routine to Josh Gad and Luke Evan’s self-effacing and defeatist rendition of ‘Gaston’, and plunging ‘Be Our Guest’ into exactly the sort of gauche, Baz Luhrmann-esque spectacle from which even Busby Berkeley’s razzamatazz would have shied away with blushed incredulity.
Plot wise, we are exactly where we were in 1991; the narrative moving from stained glass windows to brief vignettes showing a rather effete Prince (Dan Stevens) indulging in a hedonist gala, interrupted by Hattie Morahan’s Agathe (a.k.a. – the enchantress). In the incarnation of an old hag, she offers him a red rose he callously refuses. Her punishment is a curse upon the castle and all who dwell there - seems a little extreme for the servant class never harboring any ill will toward her. Nevertheless, a curse is a curse. The years pass. The castle falls into disrepair. Each time a rose petal is shed from her magic flower in the Prince’s possession – a painful reminder of his callousness – the servile occupants who cater to this hideously disfigured monarch, all of whom are presently transformed into various inanimate objects, develop just a bit more rigor mortis in their joints. Without a girl to break the spell they will soon cease to exist. A ray of hope derives from the nearby village: Belle (Emma Watson) – the headstrong ‘odd’ if comely lass, absolutely refusing to marry the most eligible bachelor in town: Gaston (Luke Evans). Despite her clear rejection of his advances, Gaston is determined to wed Belle.
But Belle is utterly devoted to her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) – an inventor of elaborate clocks that depict secrets of his former life with Belle’s mother (Zoe Rainey). As before, Maurice ventures off to a nearby market to peddle his wares (in the 1991 version, it was an inventor’s convention and a wood-chopping device). And although Kline plays Maurice with far more dignity and infinitely less befuddlement than his portly animated incarnation, his ‘inventor with a heart’ still manages to get hopelessly lost in a nightmarish forest landscape instantly turned to chalk under an almost greyish volcanic ash meant to resemble snow – in June, no less. This becomes a woefully silly running gag in the movie. It is curious none of the other townsfolk recall they are living in a valley just beyond where the ancient palace endures. But we are told the enchantress wiped out all memory of its existence. So the town is under a spell too. Presumably, none have ever dared to venture beyond the town in search of their own happiness. Simple things for simple minds, I suppose. Maurice eventually finds his way to the Beast’s castle and after stumbling upon several of its enchanted objects tries his best to escape. Delayed in his promise to Belle – to fetch a single rose – Maurice’s ‘theft’ is witnessed by the Beast who imprisons him in the castle tower. Moving on: Gaston’s right-hand, LeFou (Josh Gad) endeavors to make a diverting party for this nihilistic brute he hopelessly – and rather haplessly admires; drunken revelry interrupted when Maurice – newly freed, bursts in, claiming Belle has traded herself in kind for his release from the Beast’s lair.
Gaston placates Maurice with a search party for Belle’s safe return. But he quickly loses his temper with the doddering old man, whom he now senselessly pummels despite LeFou’s call for restrain. Instead, Gaston elects to bind Maurice with rope to the stump of a nearby tree and leaving him for dead at the mercy of the wolves; a brutal end narrowly averted when Agathe rescues Maurice at the crack of dawn. Maurice returns to the village to accuse Gaston of attempted murder. While the town is momentarily on his side, they quickly revert to following the more imposing bully, despite Agathe’s corroboration of Maurice’s account of events. Back at the castle, the rough start to an affair du coeur between Beast and Belle has segued into a devotion of sorts, not yet true love on her part, but fueled by Belle’s ability to see the lighter side of this creature who holds her hostage; a genuine sense of Stockholm Syndrome creeping into her appreciation. Recognizing her love of books, the Beast bequeaths Belle his formidable library. Asked by Belle if he has read all of the volumes stored within its walls, he sheepishly admits to have ‘missed a few’ and she, later reads Shakespearean sonnets to him across a snowy footbridge while he wistfully gazes onto the domain he openly confesses to ‘seeing for the very first time’. Ah me…what one good woman can do.
Reality – of a sort – intrudes on this idyllic escape into improbable love. Having justly accused Gaston of attempted murder, Maurice is imprisoned in a paddy wagon for his ‘delusions’; the town preparing to screw their courage to the sticking post and storm the Beast’s fortress. Meanwhile, back at the castle, the Beast reveals a magic atlas to Belle that will allow her to travel to anywhere and seemingly any time in history. Shielded from the truth regarding her own mother, Belle now places her hands and the Beast’s paws on the atlas, propelling them both to a desolate windmill in Paris where she witnesses her mother, riddled with the plague, begging Maurice to steal away with their young daughter while she quietly expires in the squalor of their confined bedroom.  Returning in time and place to the castle, the Beast allows Belle to see what has become of her father through yet another clairvoyant device – the magic mirror. This reveals Maurice’s present fate. The Beast releases Belle and she races with all speed to the town square, begging the peasant class for clemency. Since Gaston does not really love Belle he has absolutely zero compunction about tossing her into the back of the paddy wagon while he and the rest of the town march into the woods to kill the Beast and tear down his ramparts. The candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), tea pot, Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), operatic wardrobe, Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), piano forte, Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), feather duster, Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and tea cup, Chip (Nathan Mack), along with the rest of the household staff, gird their resolve and launch a counteroffensive.
In the 1991 version, the unnamed wardrobe took into it one of the offending male commoners, releasing him from its bureau of drawers moments later wearing a conga dress, high heels and heavy rope of oversized beads. In this version, Garderobe spews endless miles of multicolored cloth from bolts of fabric concealed within, embroidering three butch peasants with their pitchforks drawn in a decadent display of hooped skirts, bustieres and powdered wigs, of which one of these fellows actually seems to have enjoyed his transgender reformation. Political correctness, again. Gaston confronts the Beast on his balcony. In the ’91 version Gaston mortally stabs the Beast. Herein, he simply uses his twelve gauge shotgun to do his bloody business, repeatedly blasting into the hulking hairy mass. Progressive for the 1991 version, the wound inflicted by Gaston causes the Beast to loosen his grip, thus dropping the evildoer to his fatal plummet. Herein, Condon again delays our satisfaction for the ‘just kill’; Gaston, allowed to indiscriminately riddle the Beast in bullet holes. As the last petal tumbles from the enchanted rose inside its crystal terrarium the castle’s fragile precipices rupture, causing Gaston to do his fatal face-plant of his own accord. The Beast expires in Belle’s arms and the animated objects experience a last hardening of their arteries – truly remade into inanimate objects. Ah, but now the near mute Agathe, who came to the castle with the town’s folk, reveals herself to be the enchantress. Having witnessed the Beast’s love for Belle reciprocated in her plea for him to remain at her side, the enchantress releases him from her spell. The castle is restored to its former glory and the house staff is resurrected in human form. All rejoice at their good fortune. The town folk are lifted from their collective amnesia and return to the castle in peace to aid in this celebration.   
Generationally, Beauty and the Beast has been one of the most resilient and perennially revived fairy tales of all time. So it has taken Condon and company considerable effort to derail its lissome mystery, judicious precepts (learning to love without prejudice) and haunting parallels with life’s infinite wisdom (never judge a book by its cover, lest ye be stuck with a mate outwardly as perfect as a paragon but harboring the heart of a gross pig) into this sort of lifeless Broadway-esque explosion of sound and fury…signifying nothing. The Beast’s castle is not moodily magnificent with repositories of clandestine fascination lurking about every corner so much as it mimics some cruel and desolate Chernobyl-esque archive of self-angst and pity plunged into its own nuclear winter of discontent; the adjacent town, an unrealistically pristine ‘Walt Disney threw up in here’ Color Forms-styled enclave of simpletons denied any purpose beyond blindly following the first unoriginal thought to infest this poor provincial town.
I suppose production designer, Sarah Greenwood and senior art directors, James Foster and Nick Gottschalk have gleaned their aesthetic inspiration from a fanciful combination of Parisian Gothic and more contemporary deviant fantasy creature art work. We must tip our hats to this unusual design, as it remains the singularly ‘all encompassing’ part of the movie that never ceases to amaze. Too bad merely looking at pretty – even pretty odd – things does not – and cannot – act as a substitute for all of the other shortcomings woefully on display. One of the most endearing aspects of the 1991 animated feature was that the castle’s seemingly inanimate objects were all gleaned from the ensconced Disney philosophy to be instantly lovable and attractive at a glance; particularly Jerry Orbach’s wily candelabra, Lumiere: Orbach, cribbing inspired notions of the former grand boulevardier from a superb lampoon of the late and great Maurice Chevalier. Regrettably, from top to bottom, the characters repopulating this reincarnated version of Beauty and the Beast are more wooden than plywood and infinitely less charismatic, or even as convincing as their hand-drawn counterparts. Is it any wonder Emma Watson’s first reaction to Ewan McGregor’s weirdly insect-like Lumiere should be an attempt to crush it beneath a rather large paving stone?
Dan Stevens is an ineffectual and frankly, unprepossessing and scrawny Prince Charming; the Beast, his antithesis, transformed through clever CGI into a cross between a horned goat and lion-esque organism with little resemblance either to ‘beasts’ of yore or anything we might suppose has not escaped the bowels of hell. Mercifully, Emma Watson’s Belle is a woman reincarnated with Paige O’Hara’s spunk and foresight, the very embodiment of the ‘new’ Disney heroine who does not need, but desires a mate on her own – for her own. That makes this Belle and her predecessor in the ’91 version, ‘a very funny girl’ as far as these countrified gentry are concerned. Emma Thompson’s Mrs. Potts lacks Angela Lansbury’s grand-maternal warmth. Only Ian McKellan’s Cogsworth manages to recapture the stodgy good humor of David Ogden Stiers. In the original movie, the castle staff is transformed into inanimate objects befitting their appointments as humans in the castle. Hence, Cogsworth is the Prince’s ‘timely’ advisor; Lumiere, the servant who lights the halls, and Mrs. Potts, the head mistress of the kitchen. This iconography makes perfect sense when extended to Stanley Tucci’s Maestro (a newly created character for this version), reincarnated from the Prince’s pianist into a piano forte. But it remains a bizarre mystery how and why the operatic Audra McDonald, as the Maestro’s accomplice, should suddenly find herself remade as the portly ‘clothes horse’ bureau in Belle’s bed chamber.  Luke Evans is a credible Gaston, exuding equal portions of ego and menace, while Josh Gad’s LeFou is impressively dimensional, even empathetic, especially for a character that, in the 1991 version, began life as mere comedic fop: the dumpy and frequent punching bag of his well-muscled cohort.
Beauty and the Beast ought to have been a tale as old as time. And yet, Condon and his cameraman, Tobias A. Schliessler have endeavored to add some decidedly ‘of the moment’ staging likely to date their adaptation in decades yet to follow; the frenetic, chop-shop way the action sequences are Ginsu-ed, the artificially created ‘hand-held’ look in complete juxtaposition to the high-styled formality of the period; the vignette-orchestrated fades to black that tediously occur whenever Condon cannot figure out more finessed connective tissue to string two scenes of emotional disparity together.  In all, these willful decisions to transform a classic adventure/romance with a moral center into a careening roller coaster ride with glamorous, if anesthetizing special effects renders the storytelling a rather moot point. We know how this one ends. Hence, the focus herein ought to have been on getting to know these characters more intimately beyond a sound bite or the anticipated ‘song’.
Like its predecessor, this Beauty and the Beast is a pop-operatic explosion of tunes gleaned from the grandest heritage of the Hollywood musical. Alas, it neither aspires to be more or better than its 1991 antecedent; but a retread and more of the same. There is a fine line of distinction between homage and copycatting and this movie crosses it on more than one occasion, regrettably to its own detriment. What is missing this time around is the joie de vivre and certain je ne sais quoi that only the animated retelling of Barbot de Villeneuve’s timeless classic can completely satisfy. While no one can deny Condon’s achievement (a co-production between Disney Inc. and Mandeville Films, shot almost entirely at Shepperton Studios in England employing an ingenious blend of full scale sets and green screen matte work) as technically robust and visually encompassing spectacle with scores of heavily pancaked and preening extras swirling about in lavish set pieces, the ambitiousness is all for not since we are deprived the story’s tender core of a love, depressingly absent, constantly relegated to the back cupboard in favor of more grandiloquent production values. Pretty to look at, though deadly dull, this Beauty and the Beast cannot hold a candle to the 1991 version. I suspect, Orbach’s Lumiere would wholeheartedly agree.
Beauty and the Beast looks predictably solid in 1080p, digitally pristine and with a consistently sharp image bathed in eye-popping brilliant colors. Contrast is bang-on accurate. It’s nice to see a movie of more recent times where the overall spectrum of color design has not been tinted down to reflect that post-post modern exaggerated blue/teal tint for night scenes (there is, after all, a myriad of other ways to photograph them). Indeed, the hallmark of this visual presentation is an explosion of color; brilliant blue skies, lush emerald green summer foliage, and a plethora of intricately woven fabrics and hair styles that positively glisten in the dawn or full noonday sunshine, equally to impress when it twinkles under the pallor of romance-inducing moonlight.  Blacks are very deep and absorbing and flesh tones, thoroughly accurate, with fine detail always brought to the forefront. No complaints here, nor with the 7.1 DTS audio, offering up clarity and spaciousness with a smoothly enveloping posture. Extras are confined to typical junkets we have come to expect from Disney: a music video, making-of featurette and some very brief snippets excised from the final cut (aside: I think these should have been more accurately labeled as ‘outtakes’ and/or ‘trims’ rather than ‘scenes’ as they barely play at a minute a piece and, in most cases, for far less). Bottom line: this Blu-ray disc presentation of Beauty and the Beast is flawless and satisfying. Were that the movie could boast as much!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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