On Beauty and the Beast, and the Nature of Nostalgia.

So, here we are. The big one. The one you’ve all been waiting for: my review of the hottest live-action movie this spring, Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast Poster Copyright 2017 Disney Media
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s the live action version of Beauty and the Beast! Copyright Disney Media 2017

For those of you who read my marginally scathing review of La La Land, you’re probably expecting a music-related diatribe railing about Beauty and the Beast‘s somewhat mediocre singing. And you’re right to expect that — sort of. There were certainly musical pitfalls and, boy, will I get to those. When it comes right down to it though, similar to La La Land, much of this move was an absolute delight. And unlike La La Land, the nostalgic, deprecating, and rawly aware nature of this movie allowed me to enjoy it in spite of many of its singer’s struggles. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think Disney got this one right.

Emma Watson -- Belle Screenshot
My face during much of this movie.

First, let’s talk about the story. I admit, I was skeptical that Disney could turn this Stockholm-syndrome redux into something modern with limited cringeworthiness. They tackled the cartoon-version’s plot issues admirably. By fleshing out the story via expanded but deliberately chosen character additions, they filled in plot gaps without slipping into cliche. Indeed, the script captures a tongue-in-cheek playfulness alongside an introspection and character arc that allows the viewer to believe that a genuine love really could develop between Belle and the Beast. Unlike the 1990s version, the love story didn’t go from 0 to 60 in no time flat. Plus additional nuggets of information about both characters backgrounds added a richness and believability to the story that increased its reliability exponentially. I applaud the screenwriters for retooling a beloved classic and not merely meeting the mark, but exceeding it.

Belle and her father screenshot
Belle and her dad’s codependency makes SO MUCH MORE SENSE when you get the back story. Good job 2017.

(It’s worth noting that the much hyped ‘gay moment’ was blink-and-you’ll-miss it, and devolved quickly into marginally offensive cliche. It was the one plot point that I think really missed the mark. But, I digress.)

Gaston and Lefou
You thought this was the LGBT moment, didn’t you? NOPE.

As for the cinematography — wow. Wow, wow, wow. The previews were intriguing, but the real thing was breathtaking. Nuanced lighting choices, sweeping panoramic shots, and tender close-ups in soft focus highlighted both gorgeous snapshots of the French countryside and the gradual blossoming of a tender love, one that didn’t take itself too seriously. (Plus the very intentional call out to Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music was pure genius.) Besides all the outdoor shots, the intricate cutlery-based choreography in Be Our Guest is sure to dazzle viewers of all ages, and the complex greyscale of the castle is appears both haunting and beautiful.  All of the furniture-cum-characters are intricately detailed and heartbreakingly human. When the curse is finally broken and the castle bursts to life, a cacophony of sound and color transforms the landscape as though accomplished by the effortless flick of a wand. The aesthetics of this movie are truly Disney magic at its finest.

Beauty and the Beast Ballroom Screenshot
Beauty and the Beast: Inspiring prom dress choices since 1992

Of course, we do have to address the music. Oh, the music. Remember that time I said that the composers, producers, and directors of La La Land were markedly unfair to Emma Stone by making her sing a variety of music outside of her range? Yeah, ditto to the Beauty and the Beast production team in regards to Emma Watson. Unlike La La Land, with its pseudo-indie vibe, the Disney team decided to autotune the crap out of Watson, Dan Stevens (the Beast), and Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) — the 3 main character, non-singers in the cast — and leave the rest of the folks with their natural tone. All that served to do was make the stark divide in skill even more obvious. (Also – side note. Fully trained Broadway stars are intimidated when singing alongside Audra McDonald, a goddess upon this earth. Who the heck thought it was a good idea to have her sing a duet with total novice Emma Watson, even if it was only for approximately 8 bars?!)

What does all that mean? Well, while the orchestration was delightful (GENIUS to have Stanley Tucci play the harpsichord — an instrument I don’t even like, usually) and the actual singers were really damn good (shout-out to West End alum Luke Evans as Gaston, who was a delight), I found myself — again, a la La La Land — inordinately distracted by the subpar singing coming from the romantic leads. And while I enjoyed this film more than La La Land, the more I think about it, the more I find myself distressed by its awful musical choices. Why?

Look, there’s going to be a whole generation of little kids inspired by this movie. And while the cartoon Disney prince and princess voices were pretty flawless, they were also attainable. With natural talent, hard work, and well-studied technique, an aspiring 5-year-old Belle could really grow up to sing like Disney-heyday superstars Lea Salonga and Paige O’Hara. Unfortunately, there is literally no way that any little boys and girls can learn to sing like Emma Watson or Dan Stevens, because it is physically impossible. Disney just created characters that aren’t just aesthetically out of reach for many children, but artistically as well. I find it really hard to support that.

Still, I genuinely enjoyed Beauty and the Beast. I had a grin from ear-to-ear pretty much the entire time. It was fluffy, engaging, and full of suspense, even though we all knew how the story ends. If you’re looking to bring wee ones, it’s chockfull of tension but highlights little gore or violence. I’d say children 7 and up are likely good to go. Though the film is long, it jaunts along at a steady clip, and doesn’t get bogged down in much exposition.

While it had flaws, this movie was pretty much everything my 5-year-old heart could have asked for. Except, maybe a leading lady who could sing, of course.

85/100 for gorgeous cinematography, a much more realistic love story, a lack of Stockholm-syndrome (comparatively speaking), pithy quips, and a swashbuckling, buttery voiced Gaston. Points off for blatant overuse of autotune, and cruelly pitting Emma Watson’s thin and reedy voice against the gift to humanity that is Audra McDonald. 

Beauty and the Beast Copyright 2017 Disney Media

— S

Day 76: March 20, 2017

 

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