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Beauty and the Beast – A Timeless Take Two

BLOG #15, SERIES #8

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

A TIMELESS TAKE TWO

April 12, 2017

The most magical week of myy life? It would have to be the time Disney Studios invited me to be their guest for a week. In 1981-1982, on the occasion of a joint venture between The Humanities Classic Film Series in Keene, Texas, and Walt Disney Films, I was given free rein at the entire Disney film archives. Name the film, a projectionist would set up a private film-showing for me. What a heady feeling that was! Talk about a boy locked up in a candy store!

My genial host was Art Stevens, who was then directing and filming The Fox and the Hound (he would later become Disney’s director of animation). Thanks to him, I was even shown the current state of The Fox and the Hound – part black and white sketches and already filmed cell-based animation. Stevens would later fly out to Texas and host one of the earliest premiers of the film for our series.

Serendipitously, on my last day there in Anaheim, the entire staff was invited to the auditorium to see the first glimpses into EPCOT (then half way between dream and reality).

After I descended from Mount Olympus to resume normal life in Texas, I spent many months writing and then publishing the film history of each of the Disney films chosen for the series attendees.

* * * * *

But the original animated Beauty and the Beast did not even exist back in 1981-82. It did not become reality until 1991, and almost immediately became a cult classic. As is clear in Ann Hornaday’s March 17, 2017 Washington Post review, “‘Beauty’ Remake Expands on the Magic”: “How indeed to take a cartoon loved to the point of obsession, flesh it out with actors who can’t be expected to live up to the two-dimensional protagonists of fans’ imaginations, and open it up to lived-in realism, without losing the pure fantasy of the original? How does a movie last forever, even as it’s deconstructed and reinvented over time.”

“The answer is: with a mixture of careful deliberation and boldness, both of which are on full display in this pleasingly all-out but reassuringly familiar take on story that might not have started with Disney’s movie but, for many, seemed to end there. Emma Watson delivers an alert, solemn turn as Belle, the French country girl with a penchant for reading and inventing. Although Dan Stevens—best known for his recurring role on ‘Downton Abbey’ –is heard more than seen, he lends the Beast just the right ratio of soul to raffish misanthropy.”

Joe Morgenstern, in his March 17, 2017 Wall Street Journal review titled, “‘Beauty’: Live Actors, Dead Wrong,” begins with this observation: “More is less in Disney’s live-action remake of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ –so much less that this crazily cluttered venture in industrial entertainment betrays the essence of what made the 1991 animated feature a beloved classic.”

Stephanie Zacharek’s lead for her March 27 review for Time reads, “Beauty and the Beast is wonderfully out of step with the times,” and continues with “The key to Bill Condon’s wondrous live-action musical . . . is that it’s not a movie of its time. It’s not even a movie of 1991, the year Disney released the animated film that provides its framework. In its going-for-broke exuberance and wedding-cake lavishness, this new Beauty most resembles the musicals of the mid-to-late 1960’s, like Carol Reed’s Oliver! And a new version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein made-for-TV Cinderella.”

Zacharek concluded with, “You could accuse Beauty and the Beast of being too generous in doling out sensory overload. But then, it did spring from a movie that featured a motherly singing teapot, Maurice Chevalier-esque candelabra and a persnickety clock who does everything by the rules…. The grand musical number, ‘Be Our Guest,’ in which all these characters–plus plates, silverware and more–bounce and jump and sing in majestically syncopated madness, is probably too much. But how about those napkins, undulating and writhing in the air like enthusiastic Martha Graham understudies? Somebody dreamed this up. The human mind is a miracle.”

“The human heart is too, and Beauty and the Beast doesn’t fail us on that score. It’s explicit about the unpredictability of love, the way it sneaks up on us unbidden. When Belle’s Beast looks at us with anguished eyes, he speaks a wordless truth about this most adult of all romantic fairytales.”

The movie made the cover of the March 4 Parade. The banner words surrounding images of the stars, Dan Stevens and Emma Watson: THE ENCHANTED WORLD OF BEAUTY AND THE BEAST…” Inside the lavishly illustrated review is headlined with “A TALE AS OLD AS TIME,” and Lambeth Hochwald begins with these words: “There’s something about Beauty and the Beast and its story of true love and courage that’s made it beloved for generations, especially since Disney brought the 1700’s French fairy tale to the big screen as a sweepiing animated movie musical in 1991.”

MY TAKE ON THE FILM

First of all, we had trouble even getting into a showing. And that was in spite of so many theaters devoting two or three of their screens to the film rather than the usual single-showings. It was reminiscent of the Golden Age of Family Films to see so many multi-generational families (grandparents, parents, children) coming in together.

We loved the film. The cast is great: Luke Evans as the detestable villain (without any redeeming qualities whatsoever); Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, is superb in his role; Dan Stevens we already knew well, having watched him break hearts around the world by his shocking premature death at the inception of Downton Abbey’s long run; Emma Watson gained a worldwide following due to her starring role as Hermione in the Harry Potter movies.

Both Stevens and Watson were nigh perfect in their portrayals of the Beast and Beauty. The voices were also most memorable; Josh Gad as the aide-de-camp to the loathsome villain; Ewan McGregor as the gilded candelabra [once Lumiere, the Prince’s valet]; Emma Thopson as housekeeper-turned-teapot; Audra Mcdonald as the opera diva who becomes an enormous wardrobe; Gugu Mbatha Raw as the saucy housemaid who got turned into a feather-duster; and Stanley Tucci plays a new character, a human turned into a harpsichord.

But unquestionably, Stevens and Watson steal the show. The essence of the show has to do with the Prince’s initial arrogance and total lack of kindness. In true fairy-tale tradition, he is turned into a repulsive Beast tied to a rose that loses its petals as the Beast deteriorates. Only true love can stop the inexerable process of petal-loss. But who could possibly fall in love with a beast?

No small thanks to Stevens and Watson, the miracle takes place. There are two moments in the film that more than made up for the price we paid for our tickets: The anguish in the Beast’s eyes as he realizes how preposterous it is to even imagine that a vision of beauty called Belle could possibly ever love him; and the second: that incredible moment following the Beast’s rescuing her from almost certain death in the ferocious wolf attack–when, somehow, some way, the cameras catch that all-too-rare glow in Belle’s eyes when she falls in love with the Beast. In my entire lifetime, I’ve seen it in a bride but once: even across the church, the love-light in the bride’s eyes almost blinded me. That glowing sense of wonder in a set of eyes I rarely see in children’s eyes any more. And when I have, invariably it’s in the eyes of homeschooled children whose parents have protected them from an increasingly amoral media. As for the intense love revealed in a bride’s eyes, I strongly suspect its scarcity today is directly tied to the high percentage of brides who have already been living with their grooms. Because of that sad reality in today’s hook-up generation, honeymoons don’t mean what they used to.

So, in summation, I urge each of you to see Beauty and the Beast, if possible in 3-D.