What’s the Point? A Review of Beauty and the Beast

beauty and the beast

Why would you make a live action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast? Other than to make a hell of a lot of money, that is. The 1991 musical is one of the crown jewels in Disney’s history, the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, and a family classic whose popularity endures to this day. The fact that everybody already agrees that the original is great is both the reason this movie got made, and the reason why it should’ve never been made in the first place. When you’re working with such a beloved property, it doesn’t make sense to make any big changes that could potentially anger the fans. But if you’re not going to make anything new to the material, well, then what’s the point of remaking the movie in the first place?

That doesn’t matter to the stockholders. For almost a decade now, Disney has been cranking out live action versions of its most popular movies.They started out with clever twists, like re-telling the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of villainous enchantress Maleficent, but somewhere between Cinderella and The Jungle Book all pretensions of originality were dropped, and so we are presented with a Beauty and the Beast that doesn’t pretend to be anything but a reenactment designed to feed on nostalgia and make lots of bank.

The biggest problem with Beauty and the Beast is the conundrum I already mentioned, the fact that it must exist in this weird place of trying to update the story to our contemporary cultural moment, while not changing anything too much, so as to not anger the people who grew up loving the original. The second biggest problem with Beauty and the Beast is that every time director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) and his collaborators are presented with this conundrum, they settle in the worst possible decision.

For example, why would you cast Emma Watson, an actress who simply does not have the vocal power to star in a musical, as the star of a musical? I imagine Condon wanted to play off of Watson’s public persona as an outspoken feminist, trying to bring some 21st Century relevance to a character who was designed as a “strong female lead”, but still received criticism for falling in love with the talking buffalo who imprisoned her. Regardless of the motives, it was a bad decision. Watson can’t sign well enough to not need considerable auto-tune help on her tracks, and she isn’t completely comfortable spending most of her scenes acting against computer generated characters. Despite coming of age with the Harry Potter movies, Watson has always been better with contemporary material. Her one truly great performance remaining Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring

Even if Watson was able to extract pathos out of having a conversation with a candlestick and her only set-back was the singing, there wouldn’t be a particularly good reason for her casting considering how lazy and half-baked Condon’s attempts at updating the material are. There is a scene in which the town’s people punish Belle for trying to teach a girl to read, a seriously clunky moment that tells us nothing we already didn’t know from listening to the lyrics of the opening number. The inclusion of a trip to Paris courtesy of a time-travelling book also goes nowhere, and doesn’t add any real value to the themes of the movie.

There are hundreds of similar little changes that don’t really have a reason to exist. Not only do they make the movie longer, but they muddy the plot and the message of the movie. One of the most admirable things about the animated version is how streamlined it is, how it doesn’t waste any of its 84 minutes and manages to tell a captivating and beautiful story. What’s the real reason why you would add an eleven o’clock number in which the Beast sings a ballad saying “I let her steal into my melancholy heart”, when we’ve already witnessed that happen on screen? We don’t need a CGI singing wilderbeast to recount the plot for us, especially since everyone in the audience will already be familiar with the story.

I know what you’re thinking. Is everything about this movie so bad? Isn’t there anything redeemable about it? The truth is the movie isn’t really all that bad, or all that horrible. It’s simply mediocre. I didn’t feel particularly bored or restless watching it, but the movie kept tripping on its own feet, reminding me that I had already seen this very story, told in a much better way. If there is a silver lining to this, it’s Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou, who benefit not only from having extensive experience as musical theater performers, but from being able to play off each other and not having to constantly interact with computer generated characters. You know, acting.

This is particularly noticeable in Gaston’s show-stopping number, “Gaston”, which Condon stages like an old-fashioned musical, with a set of extras dancing around the tables and singing along. A good musical number will get you a long way, even if you decide to cut and re-arrange some of Howard Ashman’s magnificent lyrics for no valuable reason (I could go on a tirade about how incredibly stupid and disrespectful it is to change a score that is the crowning achievement of one of the great lyricists in the history of musical theatre but I don’t want to sound like too much of a maniac).

We are so familiar with the animated version that even the slightest change to a musical number feels like a betrayal, and every change made to the script feels like a deterioration of the original. The most successful parts of Beauty and the Beast are the ones that adhere closest to the animated classic. But if the best possible version of this movie is a frame-by-frame recreation of another movie -and if there are already remakes of Mulan, Aladdin, and The Lion King scheduled for the coming years- one can’t help but ask the question: is there any legitimate reason for this movie to exist?

Grade: 4 out of 10

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The Future is Nigh: A Review of Logan

logan

Hugh Jackman has spent almost two decades playing Wolverine, and although it is never safe to assume a comic book character has been put to rest (especially one that makes as much money as this one), Logan makes a very compelling case for letting this be Jackman’s last outing as the immortal mutant with deadly metal claws we’ve all come to love. I do, and don’t, mean this as a compliment to the movie. Logan is a thesis statement for a more creative and liberated future in superhero movies, but also a suggestion that the genre might be doomed by its own blockbuster success.

The movie is set in the future, Logan is one of the very few mutants left in a world that has hunted them into extinction. He sports a grizzled beard and makes a living driving a limo in a Texas border-town. Logan is done with this bullshit. He is just trying to make some money to buy a yacht so he and his beloved mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a telepath suffering from degenerative brain disease, can finally sail into the sunset and away from this horrible future.

That is, until he crosses paths with a young mutant. The first child mutant he or Charles have seen in years. Her name is Laura (Dafne Keen), and she’s a runaway. She is being chased by an evil corporation that has been experimenting on mutants south of the border or something like that. The details aren’t as important as the nature of the mission: grizzled old Logan now has to take this little Mexican girl all the way across the United States so she can find safe haven in Canada. Ain’t that something?

It’s possible that James Mangold and the other people who worked on this movie could sense where the country would be heading by the time the movie came out, but could they possibly have imagined how timely and bittersweetly Logan‘s story would play to a  post-inauguration audience? Whether the filmmakers intended for Logan to play as political allegory for our times is beside the point. One would have to be truly disconnected from the world around them to not see the parallels.

Many people -including those behind this film- are saying that Logan is more of a western than a superhero movie. There is even a large section in the film in which the characters watch George Stevens’ classic western Shane. Logan shares a lot of similarities not only with the plot of Stevens’ movie, but with the kind of social messaging westerns used to have in the culture.

The best westerns of the past reflected certain truths about America and its relationship to its own mythology. The clearest example is probably John Ford’s The Searchers, which reflects the anxieties of the white establishment about the changes that were coming about thanks to the rise of youth culture and the civil rights movement.

Similarly, Logan tells us something about the time we live in. The old white man (mutant) takes a last stand, and sacrifices himself for the well being of the future generation. A generation lead by a Spanish-speaking girl and her multi-racial cohorts. The movie is superficially the last chapter of a beloved character, but could also be read as the last chapter of a type of hero. Is Logan the story of the righteous white man seeking redemption?

Sadly, it’s more interesting (and entertaining) to think of the wider political and social ramifications of Logan than to actually watch the movie. This is Jackman’s ninth appearance as Wolverine, and I can’t help but tip my hat to a performer such as him, who has committed to truly perform, and give it his all every time he plays the character. It’d be really easy to phone it in when you’re doing one ridiculous sequel after another, but Jackman is a pro, and it’s nice to see him get a farewell movie such as this.

Dafne Keen, the little girl who plays Laura, is also pretty awesome, and I would potentially watch a movie about her own crazy adventures. But that’d be another movie. Despite Jackman’s commitment and a number of cool ideas, Logan mostly disappoints, particularly as an action movie. The action set pieces are a disaster, impossible to follow, and with no sense of action geography whatsoever. The movie is incredibly violent, but also brute, with not enough precision to its filmmaking and not enough pathos to its bloodshed (in an aesthetic sense, there is lots of sad moments in the movie). The plot churns along, but other than Jackman’s commitment, there is little to keep us going.

Here is where I come down on Logan: It’s quite an interesting artifact about our times. It’s the first superhero movie in a while to actually want to say something about who we are, and why our culture has taken to this kind of storytelling. It also suggests an alternative model for blockbusters, in which the necessity to always go bigger could be replaced with an interest in exploring different genres and kinds of stories. At the same time, and this is the saddest part, it suggests that if our superheroes do go down that path, quality filmmaking won’t come with them.

Superheroes are men of action, but the action sequences in their movies are rarely great anymore. They don’t reflect an interesting thought, a unique vision. They don’t reflect the themes of the story, and they rarely stand out from each other. Action movies say a lot about themselves with the way they present their action, how it’s choreographed, and how it’s edited. Sloppy action sequences belong in sloppy action movies. If you’re an action movie, tell your story through action.

Grade: 6 out of 10

P.S. The trailer for Deadpool 2 played before the movie, and Jesus Christ, if it isn’t the biggest and most depressing evidence that superhero blockbusters have lost whatever interest they had left in competent filmmaking. This trailer is basically one joke. A joke that has been done before and is easy to pull off. And it can’t even do that!