There goes the baker with his tray, like always the same old bread and rolls to sell… Review of Beauty & the Beast

Remember the classic Beauty and the Beast from 1991?  Remember how good it was?  Go watch that.

We are in a dark age of recreating animated films as live action movies.  Cinderella a few years ago explored new areas of body horror with footmen and coach drivers screaming while transforming back into farmyard animals.  Last year, we had The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon remind us of animated movies that were really great and didn’t need gritty remakes in the flesh.  To a degree, Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent also fit into this category.

But Beauty and the Beast is perhaps the most confusing entry to date.  For 70% of the film, Hermoine is interacting with an entirely CGI world of dancing pots, pans, and candlesticks.  What meaning do we get from watching an actress not make eye contact with any of the people in her world?  What new is created?

Beauty and the Beast is a perennially weird outing.  There are a half dozen film versions which come to mind, all of which present the beast as loveable but flawed instead of a monster who needs to repent.  Belle has to learn to love the monster and cure him of the curse.  This requires very little on the behalf of the beast, who simply has to refrain from being (too) monstrous.  Sure, he locks her up in his mansion.  Sure, he relies heavily upon his servants to do most of the emotional connection.  But, ultimately, it is up to Belle to find it within herself to love the beast and turn the prince into a man.

Hermione struggles to be as endearing and gentle as the animated Belle.  In the 1991 film, you get a sense that Belle and the townsfolk genuinely hold affection for each other, but feel mismatched.  Belle wants to find her place in the world and feels like a big fish in a small pond.  The townsfolk love her despite finding her a bit weird and aloof.  It is a mismatch rather than a hostile situation.

The 2017 film scraps that relationship almost entirely.  This is a cold war.  Hermione fucking hates every single stupid bastard in the town and has nothing but contempt for them all.  In return, the town can’t wait to send both her and her father off to an asylum.  I was left wondering what had gone so horribly wrong in the town, and it seems to be that Hermoine and her father are from Paris and therefore hate the peasants in the village.

Subtle changes to the movie drive this narrative.  Gone is the town’s bookshop, stocked to the ceiling with every tome known to man.  Hermoine has a choice of six books, and she’s read them all already.  This becomes a plot point later in the movie: the Beast has a thoroughly splendid library, further demonstrating the class divide in the film.  Nobles get books; the townsfolk get back to work.

Speaking of the town, apparently it is somewhere in France.  You’d never guess.  Belle and her father speak in received pronunciation.  The beast growls in some kind of generic English noble accent.  The teapot has a working class English accent so harsh you might as well be pouring lemon-scented Domestos down your ears.  And the only person with any kind of French accent is the candlestick.  When it was animated, this kind of wacky placelessness was endearing.  Now, it just makes the film feel weird and disjointed.  It’s particularly weird when Emma Thompson walks into the middle of a crowded dance floor at the end of the film to sing the hit song.  Yes, there’s the band of professional musicians.  Yes, there’s the opera singer who got turned into a wardrobe.  All these talented musicians and, inexplicably, the tea lady thinks everybody’s here to listen to her have a crack at the high notes.

And there’s a feather duster which also makes no sense.  Here it is:

Here’s the actress playing her:

Where all the other servants of the household are objectified into Uncanny Valley dwelling human-appliance hybrids, only the maid got turned into an animal-appliance hybrid. For the life of me, I can’t work out why.  What the hell did the maid do to the enchantress to suffer twice the indignity?  The prince was turned into an animal; the servants were turned into tools.  But the maid who was working for sub-minimum wage and probably didn’t even get penalty rates on the weekend got turned into both an animal and a tool.

The film has clearly tried to plug some of the gaps in the original animated film.  We discover that the prince was secretly a massive pervert who held balls for deviants.  While he was coated in weird face paint to seduce a room full of women, he encounters the old woman who turns out to be a ‘beautiful’ enchantress (Hattie Morahan).  The enchantress, as we know, transforms everybody who happened to be within five kilometres of the prince into something inhuman.  The prince turns into a big hairy monster with horns, claws, fangs, and superhuman strength (which, let us not beat around the bush, he seems 100% into).  His servants and women he was seducing all get turned into pots and pans and crap.

First, that seems like the sort of thing that the prince is more than secretly into.  Second, holy frijoles, his staff seem to be punished more than he is.  If I had the choice between ‘Hideously ugly but super strong’ and ‘A candlestick with all the strength of a candlestick’, I would choose the former.  The staff actually think their punishment is fair (because they believe they had a moral obligation to stop the prince from being a monster).  There’s a brokenness to this understanding of responsibility that is difficult to parse.  Collateral damage is okay because they had a moral responsibility to prevent crimes in their zone of influence earlier.

The film also tries to deal with the awkwardness of a ten year old being punished by the enchantress of the original.  The castle now occupies a sort of timeless bubble.  The prince is the same age at the date of his sin as he is at the date of his redemption.  But this introduces a new problem: lots of the staff had families who did not live near the castle, so why don’t their families come looking for them?  The enchantress helpfully punished all of those people as well, wiping their memories of their happy family members who were now pots and pans and crap.

At some point, we need to come to peace with the demented nature of the punishment and just roll with it.  By trying to ‘fix’ the original story, we struggle to maintain the suspension of disbelief needed to ignore the fact that this story is basically about telling women to enjoy arranged marriages.

Skip this and rewatch the cartoon.

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