If you loved Beauty and the Beast and just enjoyed it, don’t read the following. Seriously.
I usually don’t like to see “event films” or those preceded by great hype, on the opening weekend. I had to wait longer than I wanted to see Beauty and the Beast, and was disappointed that I’d waited too long to see it in 3D, which had been recommended. But I generally try to avoid the “event “ aspect of a film so I can more properly enjoy and evaluate it without the attendant hoopla. I may have needed the hoopla to enjoy this film to the fullest. But my wife wasn’t in a hurry to see it, my best friend (also my film buddy) lives six hours away in Manhattan, and my grandchildren live 900 miles away. Hence the delay.
I don’t find the story particularly touching or overwhelming, as some do. So I found myself evaluating it musically (can’t help that) and to study it as an example of what can happen when a live-action film attempts to recreate and rework an animated classic. As a singer, pianist, musical director, and musical performer, I am a massive musical snob. (The last time my wife and I saw a musical on Broadway, we found ourselves criticizing both the voice and the vocal technique of the lead; the habit can be distracting to say the least.)
It turns out that I cannot separate the musical strengths and weaknesses of the film apart from how it addressed the challenges of bringing an animated creation into “real life”. For instance, in an animated film, you can make the character look any way you want, and you can get the best voice actor to do the lines, and the best singer to sing the songs. Sometimes that can be the same person, but it doesn’t always have to be. In most films of today, we seem to be looking for actors who can carry a tune, and hope for the best (see La La Land).
With our lead, there are wins and losses. Emma Watson has been criticized for having a weak singing voice. Her voice is fine, if not big, and not particularly colorful. She’s out-sung by nearly everyone else in the cast, yet it doesn’t really show. But she doesn’t really own her numbers vocally—she just delivers them well enough. The other challenge for the role is finding someone who is right physically and temperamentally. In this era of reinvention with our current emphasis on girl power, she is an excellent choice. She’s funny and feisty, and believably tough. But…(spoiler alert—I’m about to go into dangerous waters here)…while she is a lovely, pretty actress, she is not classically “beautiful,” and the first song (and her name) rings just a little false because of it. Now before I get blowback from anyone, please know that this is not a criticism. It’s just that in the animated version, one can draw Belle according to classic standards of “beautiful.” Again, Watson is lovely and very pretty (and I’m being quite precise in my wording here—but just not the specific version of beautiful that made the animated version work.
Probably the best vocalist in a major singing role in the film is Luke Evans as Gaston. I was reminded of Aaron Tveit in Les Misérables, who stood out even in a smaller role, and as a relative newcomer to films, but who blew everyone else away vocally. Evans’ voice and arrogance were great. But, truth be told, he was just a bit long in the tooth for the role. He’s currently 38, which likely puts him at 36 when he made the film. Coincidentally, he and Watson share a birthday, but he is 11 years older than she.
Matthew Crawley, I mean Dan Stevens, brought the right gruffness and tenderness to his role as the Beast. Listening to his singing, I was impressed that though he didn’t have Evans’ skill, he was quite good. Why the powers that be decided to nearly drown his big solo out with orchestration is a mystery; we would have been happy to hear more of the unadorned voice. His performance brought out the tenderness and sensitivity behind the harsh exterior, and helped make the most difficult narrative transitions more credible.
Kevin Kline as the father is such a theatrical and film legend that it’s nearly impossible to separate him from the character. Emma Thompson walked well in Angela Lansbury’s footsteps as Mrs. Potts (really, who else could have played this part?) and sings with charm and precision, particularly in the title number. Ewan McGregor nearly stole the show as actor and singer as Lumière. His “Be Our Guest” is the musical highlight of the film, and he goes far beyond his work in Moulin Rouge! in pulling it off.
Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza does what he usually does—improves every film he’s in. And I am particularly prejudiced toward Audra McDonald (Madame Garderobe). McDonald should have a major role in every musical made until she breathes her last. Her voice is the biggest in the film and almost too much (both in size and in richness, making everyone else sound just a little…less), but the voice fits the role. When is the right leading musical film role going to come around for this incredibly talented woman, who has won six (count ‘em, six!) competitive Tony Awards in this first half of her career, at least one in every possible acting category?
The art direction is spectacular, as are the costumes, and the extraordinary special effects, which allow for such believable integration of real-life and animated characters. Technically, the film is exceptional.
But after fawning over it technically, the dissonance creeps back in. The swirling camera and gorgeous animation of the 1991 version created a breathtaking and breathtakingly beautiful sequence. There was no way the “real” version could match it. The new version tries, very hard, but doesn’t reach the aching beauty of its earlier counterpart. The sweep and splendor is simply impossible with a human girl and a man on a version of stilts (under the digital costume Stevens had to endure).
Then there’s that plot point—that Belle falls in love with her captor, and that while he begins to fall in love with her, he still doesn’t release her (until the end). The new version quickly addresses the issue of freedom and how the lack of it could possibly injure the chances for true love. But then we move on, as we must narratively—but far too quickly and dismissively. The old version was a fairy tale told in animation, and we can accept the situation more easily. Here we have an animated beast but a real young woman, and her situation is just that more uncomfortable pulled out of the fairytale world and into the real one, where being held captive is a cold and sordid reality we are fighting as a society. (Is a musical version of Room coming next?)
Then there are the “updates.” The colorblind casting (or was it really?) felt both bracingly modern and somewhat distracting. What works on stage doesn’t necessarily translate to the screen. (I’ll leave that there.) Film’s realism poses certainly challenges.
Then there was all the brouhaha about the gay content. I came to the film already tired of some modern films giving us the “proper sociopolitical” context of the story it has just presented (e.g., Loving, The Imitation Game). Yes, the references here in Beauty and the Beast—in terms of performance and narrative—are few and could easily be missed by children. But I enjoy looking deeply into films of all types, and find it annoying to find an advocacy of any kind outside of documentaries, especially when it’s so unrelated to the main storyline. How might it have been received if a sympathetic character wore a “Make France Great Again” T-shirt? How distracting—and disconnected from the story—might that be? Or how about a Moor showing up and either being welcomed warmly or finding himself deported? How far might that throw the viewer out of the story? Real issues are real issues, but they don’t all belong in a fairy tale.
Josh Gad’s performance as Le Fou, the unnamed guy who finds himself dressed as a woman, and the dance at the end are not just distracting, but insulting. Le Fou is played right at the edge, but the film plays light with the hero worship, and it can be read in several ways. If Le Fou is supposed to be gay, how “progressive” is it to have a person whose name means “fool” turn out to be such a moral weakling? And who even ventures over to the dark side in support of Gaston?
The “accidental transvestite” is played as cute, but the character’s rather deep enjoyment of his predicament jerks the film into a direction far away from most fairy tale concerns, and far away from its target audience. Then his pairing with Le Fou at the end is both distracting and confusing. If Le Fou is gay, do we assume that he’d automatically be paired with a transvestite? I know plenty of people that would argue vigorously with that suggestion.
If The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast are the first efforts of a trend to bring animated films into the real world (which they are)—albeit a real world with overwhelming special effects—the filmmakers are going to have to consider wisely the challenges of translating animated worlds into real life. Certain events, plot points, and relationships that work in animated worlds may need to be more carefully adjusted and modified to work in non-animated films. If we thought stage-to-screen offered challenges, perhaps this new trend presents even more and is a new and fertile field for study and analysis.