New-Release Tuesday: Beauty and the Beast

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

Can this really be a new release? Well, yes it can. It’s a recent addition to Netflix, even though it opened in theaters just over a year ago.

Entertainment is a funny thing that way. It’s a commodity we think we understand, and don’t, really. It’s a thing we like to think we have control over, when it in fact controls us a great deal. It’s something we think amuses or frightens or thrills us when, if we really stop and think about it, we are really just amusing or frightening or thrilling ourselves. We make choices about what we watch, absorb the more-or-less predictable results (which, when done particularly well, are a product of external design, not spectation), and then rarely think deeply about what we have witnessed and why it had the effect it did.

Disney products are good examples of the complexity of this entertainment equation. Disney products which are remakes of their own earlier products are even better examples.

The animated version of Beauty and the Beast, from 1991, is widely regarded as one of Disney’s best animated fairy tales. Everything about it fairly glowed, taking the classic fairy tale—about an enchanted prince cum beast who must win the heart of a fair maiden or die trying—and layering on additional subplots about Belle’s inventor father, an obnoxious, hyper-male suitor/stalker named Gaston, and the enchanted inhabitants of the Beast’s castle, all of whom were transformed by a sorceress into furniture and bric-a-brac.

The film was almost exclusively animated in Disney’s traditional hand-drawn style—with the exception of the ballroom sequence, which was outsourced in part to then-collaborator Pixar.  The artwork was all bright and sharp, and the opening scene which introduced us to the Beast’s realm recalled the best of Disney’s ground-breaking multi-dimensional (yet nonetheless “2-D”) animation from the 1940s and 1950s.  Even the Beast, in his own way, was lovely (more so, I must say, than the Prince himself!).

The film rightfully won Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song and was also nominated for Best Picture.  The script was tight and efficient, yet not rushed, and the musical numbers consistently had audiences hooting in delight. The vocal characterizations were first rate, too, with classic stalwarts like Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, and the recently late David Ogden Stiers in supporting roles while Paige O’Hara charmed as Belle.

The themes, of course, were classic: no one is beyond redemption; don’t ostracize, bully, or persecute those who are “different”; love conquers all.

When Disney set about re-tooling Beauty as a live-action film, the studio pretty much kept all the best elements of their animated take. The central success of the 2017 rendition, though, was grounded in the casting of real-world cinema princess Emma Watson as Belle. She is, of course, terribly charming and believably winsome in the role.

But… the transition from animation to live action is less successful for other performers. Not even Kevin Kline can salvage the paper-thin role of Belle’s tinker father Maurice, and a character like Luke Evans’ Gaston is barely tolerable when he’s no longer literally a cartoon caricature. (And people want to complain about LeFou’s sexuality? Really?)

Most classic fairy tales work precisely because we know they are “not true”–and when they are presented as cartoons, you don’t mind much when there are plot holes you drive a horse-drawn carriage or two through. But when the screen is trying to paint an alternate “reality” for you… well, that’s another matter. And the mixture of a highly-animated actress like Watson with computer-drawn characters like Lumière and LeFou just doesn’t play as well did as the animated original.

Still, this is highly entertaining (read: neatly-packaged if message-driven) media which more or less delivers what you want and expect. Which is, as I understand it, the objective.

But it is also the kind of movie that gets me thinking a lot about the limitations of the business. It’s just so obvious that this is more… well, manufactured than artistic, per se. Though I doubt you’ll be thinking about that while you watch!

Beauty and the Beast is now available on Netflix. You can also stream at Amazon and YouTube.