BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and A Quasi-Defense of Disney

Once upon a time, Disney mastered the art of manufacturing fairy tales, mostly for better…but somewhat for worse too.

Let’s first tackle that lede’s concluding clause, because it almost always dictates my subdued expectations for their cinematic products.  My skepticism largely revolves around the most prominently-negative word in the lede: manufactured. Regardless of the quality of the results, Disney has always been predominantly in the business of business when it comes to show-business. Though they may dress up their money-printing with artistic excellence, the bottom line will always mean the most to the Mouse House, which can not only derail their projects, but tends to inspire snootily-purist artistic cynics like yours truly to scorn a lot of their ventures before even taking my seat.

Such has been the case for their recent string of live action adaptations of their not-so-un-recent animated classics. Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and now Beauty and the Beast can’t help but come off like Disney easily cashing in on their past successes. The bucks-factory knows how lucrative nostalgia can be (in the words of South Park: “‘member Beauty and the Beast? ‘member Belle?! ‘member “Be Our Guest”?!?!), which must be one of the main reasons they’re greenlighting these adaptations faster than they can turn on a (green)light switch. Besides superficial modifications – namely changing the surface of the movies from animated to live action/CGI – they’re for the most part (at least so far) just straightforward, exceedingly faithful retellings of the original stories. As someone who values creativity, novelty, and originality over most else in art, it’s almost too easy to turn up my snobby nose at the very notion of these transparently-commercial endeavors.

And then I buy my ticket like everyone else…and legitimately enjoy myself!

Perhaps my diminished expectations play a part, but I still can’t help but get swept up in that old Disney magic every damn time, including with Beauty and the Best.

Which brings us back to the lede: yes, I included the slightly derisive word “‘manufactured,” but it doesn’t change the positivity of the rest: “mastered the art of fairy tales.” Disney consistently doesn’t just spend top dollar to create magical fictional worlds people of all ages want to get lost in; they know how to utilize that money effectively by putting it in the right hands, from Cinderella‘s Kenneth Branagh to The Jungle Book’s Jon Favreau.

For Beauty and the Beast, those hands belong to visionary director-extraordinaire Bill Condon and his expert team of designers, particularly production designer Sarah Greenwood and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler. Sure, some of the locales look like blatant sets, but they only serve to retain the customarily quaint feeling of fairy tales within the larger $pectacle. For the most part, the design is immaculate from top to bottom, to the point where it’s hard not to WANT to get lost in this world for two hours, especially considering the consistently top-notch cast bringing this equally top-notch material to life.

And that’s the rub (more on the Bard in a bit) for such artistic purists as myself. Usually, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” should mean leaving iconic works of lore such as these alone, since how can some of the best movies ever possibly be improved upon simply through surface alterations of the same basic stories? How can they not end up as cases of diminishing returns?

But commercially, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is understandably alluring. And truthfully, from an artistic perspective, not sticking as closely as possible to the perfection of the original would be borderline foolhardy (albeit admirably risky as well). Though the animated version of Beauty and the Beast showcases gorgeous animation, its enduring legacy largely revolves around the sheer strength of the storytelling, particularly through the beloved score. I defy anyone to remain straight-faced and smile-free while listening to the brilliant likes of “Gaston,” “Something There” (which musically NAILS the feeling of falling in love), and of course the title number (I know Audra McDonald sings a portion of it at the very end, but not unleashing her Tony Award-winningest pipes on one of the most iconic songs ever is a crime; Emma Thompson can sing, but there’s a difference between crooning and blowing off the roof), all courtesy of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, one of the most beloved – and tragically short-lived – composing teams of all time.

As long as any iteration of Beauty and the Beast strictly adheres to the same basic narrative structure – and this one does – the basement possibility for how bad it will be is fairly high (undoubtedly another reason Disney decided to return to the well castle). Though this proven formula ensures the likeability of the newest Beast, evaluating its merits on its OWN terms basically requires precluding any inherited aspects, of course including the score. And in comparison, 2017’s pales in comparison to 1991’s. The narrative and musical additions add almost nothing, and often detract from the original’s more effective simplicity. Though most of the ensemble can hold a candle (pun intended) to their predecessors, a key member falls way short of the necessary mark: Emma Watson, who can barely sing and emotes like she’s playing to the cheap seats far off in the non-existent balcony.

And yet, I would still recommend revisiting this tale as old as time to almost anyone, largely because it can’t help but remind even the most cold-hearted among us of what it feels like to be a kid again.  Disney has not only basically defined fairy tales for generationS – emphasis on the plural – of audiences, but they’ve also provided the soundtracks to our collective childhoods. These yarns almost inherently transport us to a time when we felt like we were, well, in the happiest place on Earth while watching them.

And yet and yet, from an artistic standpoint, I have a hard time in good faith calling this Beauty and the Beast a “good movie,” because it adds almost nothing worthwhile to the brand’s storied lineage. The 1991 version animated and musicalized Jean Cocteu’s legendary 1946 La Belle et la Bête (there were other cinematic retellings between these two, but none worth writing about), while this Beauty and the Beast merely adds…CGI?

Though taking advantage of the title’s commercial prowess is the main motivator behind this enterprise, it exists largely due to advancements in visual effects that weren’t around in 1991. Sure, it’s populated by a talented cast of fresh faces to the material, but technological progress marks the most fundamental difference between them. Yet instead of striving for the type of uncanny CGI that’s become a signature of 21st century cinema, Disney went with more a cartoonish design, which doesn’t sufficiently separate it from the 1991 cartoon. Why produce a live action version in 2017 and not aim for visual effects to be as realistic as possible?! The design, in addition to almost every other element, harkens back too closely to the original.

And yet and yet and yet…maybe that’s enough? The theatre world – AKA MY PEOPLE – have grown accustomed to new Shakespeare productions of the same old plays all the time (I told you that I’d eventually circle back around to the Bard!). Sometimes they utilize new technology, but usually audiences only pay to see different performers tackle the monumental roles. Directors may sometimes illuminate aspects of the plays that speak to the current moment, but often revivals are justified with the argument that they’ll introduce younger audiences to these classics.

And make no mistake: the musical version of Beauty of the Beast is a classic to rival any entry in old Will’s oeuvre. All of us on our self-described sophisticated soapboxes can bitch and moan all we want, but if this Beauty and the Beast exposes the next generation to Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who are we to deny them their happily ever after?



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