Mouse House Movie Club #12: Beauty and the Beasts (1991 and 2017)

Super-big spoilers. Beware.

Disney’s live action remake cycle continues apace with Beauty and the Beast, so of course, I popped along to see it, rose in hand and ‘Be Our Guest’ in my heart. It’s a very enjoyable film with some standout moments and glorious production design, but it’s comfortably the weakest of this run of remakes and certainly the one that compares most unfavourably with its predecessor. So rather than a simple review, I figured the best approach to Beauty and the Beast 2017 is to compare it to Beauty and the Beast 1991, because there’s a lot to be learned about both films, and the process of remaking stories, by doing so.

“For who could ever learn to love a Beast…”
Beauty and the Beast 2017 (henceforth known as B&TB17 to save my achy fingers) is largely a very faithful adaption, with only a couple of new songs and fleshed-out backstories offered by way of major additions. However, there are some subtle alterations dotted throughout and while they’re only small, they have a pretty significant impact on the story’s focus and meaning.

The first is the prologue. In B&TB91, Prince’s Adam’s descent into Beast is told by a male narrator who plays no part in the rest of the film, and plays out through stained glass windows. However, in B&TB17, the narration is given by Emma Thompson (who voices Mrs Potts), lasts a good couple of minutes longer, and is played out by the flesh-and-blood actors.

It’s a very minor change, and a legitimate choice on the part of screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, and director Bill Condon, but it shifts the focus of the film dramatically. The masterstroke of playing this story out on stained glass windows is it builds no connection between the audience and The Beast. It positions this element of the story as what it is: backstory and exposition. We’re being told what we need to know without getting an insight into just how horrifying Adam’s metamorphosis into Beast is.

This changes in B&TB17. Adam’s story is no longer exposition, it’s fully fleshed-out tragedy. It gets the film off to entirely the wrong start, building up the emotional connection with Beast before we’ve met Belle. With the film later giving us an insight into how he became so selfish and cruel (a dead mother and nasty father) and an entirely new song (the powerful ‘Evermore’), B&TB17 seems more his story than Belle’s: a story of redemption for a flawed man rather than empowerment for a lost woman.

It’s important to state here that I’m not suggesting anyone involved in B&TB17 has intentionally shifted the focus. Belle is still a strong woman, she still gets all her defining moments, and like Beast, she too has a new backstory. Indeed, at times, this film enhances the feminism of the original by showing Belle inventing a proto-washing machine, and teaching a young girl to read. There is, however, a notable difference and it’s hard not to notice who the screenwriters are here.

B&TB91 was written by Linda Woolverton (who also penned Maleficent), while the new version is written by two men: Chbosky and Spiliotopoulos. Woolverton’s take doesn’t entirely sideline Beast and nor does the new version entirely sideline Belle, but it’s difficult – if not impossible – for a film to perfectly balance out two leads: there’ll always be one who subtly takes the limelight. By making the aforementioned subtle changes, and by making him less sympathetic when he first meets Belle (in the animated film, he offers Belle a room rather than keeping her in the dungeon; here it’s Lumiere, much to Beast’s anger), B&TB17 becomes Beast’s redemption story because, I assume, that’s what sings most clearly to the male writers.

This switch in focus underlines why it’s so important to get more women into significant roles in Hollywood. No matter the intentions or skill of male creative talents, they can’t bring the same insight into their female characters as women can, and that does play out in the final product. Would Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph have featured the kind of compelling female characters they do without Jennifer Lee? Would Moana have made the decisive switch from focusing on Maui to focusing on Moana without producer Osnat Shurer? Would Maleficent have been a more straightforward Sleeping Beauty remake without Woolverton’s script? They wouldn’t have been sexist, I’m sure, and nor is B&TB17, but that’s not the point.

Without a woman in a strong and significant position, those films would be very different in subtle ways, and could potentially have meant less to the female audience members who have related to them. I’d be interested to hear what young girls who’ve never seen the original Beauty and the Beast but have now gone to watch the remake think. Do they come out feeling like they can do anything and be anyone, like Belle can? Or do they come out feeling sympathy for Beast and his story of redemption? Unlike the original, I have a feeling it’s the latter.

“Little town…”
The film’s depiction of Belle herself also plays into this. To my mind, two moments define Belle’s character: the song ‘Belle’ (of course) and ‘Be Our Guest’. The first establishes her yearning, while the second shows us how she reacts to getting what she yearns for. You can nail one but not the other and still succeed, but if both don’t work, your character’s in real trouble, and sadly that’s what happens with B&TB17 .

A core part of the problem is Emma Watson. A tremendous ambassador and justifiably vaunted hero for millions of young women, Watson is nevertheless a limited actor. Give her pure and straightforward emotions to play, and she soars. So in the reprise of ‘Belle’, when all she has to convey is disgust turning into joyous ambition she’s fine. Likewise in ‘Something There’, when all she has to convey is a growing sense of affection, she’s great too. But Belle’s a complex character, and the two core moments I’ve mentioned feature complicated emotions that Watson can’t quite tap in to.

Let’s take ‘Belle’ first. On paper, this is a pretty insulting song. Belle journeys through her “little town” passing judgement on its “little people” who go about their boring business “like always”. A bit stuck up for sure, but a vital part of success here is complexity. Belle has to seen bored, but she can’t seem boring. She has to seem cut off, but she can’t seem distant. She has to want more, but she can’t dismiss the villagers as being less. In B&TB91, Paige O’Hara’s beautifully warm voice and the energy of the character animation combine to convey this. She seems to regard the villagers with genuine affection, and while she’s disconnected from them, it’s because she’s dreaming up an adventure. She’s bored, but by no means boring. Yearning but not critical.

Watson simply doesn’t have the range to convey this delicacy.  She plods through the scene, rather than bounding through it, and when she gets wrapped up in her book (“It’s my favourite part, you’ll see…”) she looks like she’s reading the back of a cereal box rather than an exciting bit of a beloved novel. This may have been a conscious choice on Watson’s part (Belle does need to convey some boredom here), but it’s undoubtedly the wrong choice. More than any other ‘I Want’ Song, ‘Belle’ dictates the character for the rest of the film. It’s not only our defining insight into her hopes and dreams, but it’s the first impression we get of her. It needs to be a good one, and Watson’s performance sadly isn’t.

She’s not helped by a small but significant change to the script that redefines Belle’s journey. In the original, Belle’s asked about the book she’s returning to the library, which here is noticeably smaller and contains just a handful of books to make the town seem even worse and its people even stupider. She replies with a description of Jack and the Beanstalk. It’s a masterstroke from lyricist Howard Ashman, highlighting her desire to escape the “little town” into something bigger (a giant’s world) and emphasising her desire for adventure. She wants to go to the kind of ‘big’ place Jack goes to.

In B&TB17, however, the book is changed, with Belle saying it’s about “two lovers in fair Verona”.  Obviously this is Romeo and Juliet, and it’s referenced again later when Belle tells Beast that it’s “my favourite play”. If we take that book to be a symbol of Belle’s hopes and dreams, this change is pretty disastrous, as it entirely reshapes her motivation. She’s no longer wanting adventure, she’s wanting romance. She’s no longer looking for something independent from other people, she’s looking to be one half of a partnership. It strips away a certain amount of her agency.

Of course, Belle references love in B&TB91’s rendition too (“here’s where she meets Prince Charming…”), but it’s almost incidental. The love she’s describing here is a result of the adventure she yearns for – it’s something she encounters after discovering herself through adventure, and therefore much more empowering. By giving Romeo and Juliet such prominence, the writers have again conveyed a truth more relevant to Beast than to Belle. The reference is there to represent a transformative tale about love crossing even the biggest of barriers, and heighten the sense of redemption Beast feels as the story progresses.

“Try the grey stuff…”
‘Be Our Guest’ acts as a semi-official reprise of ‘Belle’ in so much as it’s the character encountering the “adventure in the great wide somewhere” that she longs for. It comes at a critical point in the film, with Belle having been treated appallingly by Beast and refused dinner. Any normal person in that situation would try to escape, and indeed that’s exactly what the Belle of B&TB17 tries to do. What keeps her in the castle is ‘Be Our Guest’, where she realises two things: (1) Lumiere and co are pretty damn decent and need her, and (2) she’s finally found what she’s looking for.

Again, Watson is confronted with a complex emotional scene, and again she can’t convey its full breadth. This is, in part, because she struggles with non-verbal reaction, and as Belle’s silent throughout the song, that’s a pretty big problem. There’s clear decision-making here on Watson’s part. In B&TB91, Belle is very animated (no pun intended): she laughs, sings, and claps along with the song, and Watson seems to have made a conscious choice to underplay it for fear of being seen to overact. But instead, she seems bored, doing nothing but smile with coy admiration at Lumiere and co.

Where’s the enjoyment? Where’s the excitement? Where’s the sense that Belle’s heart’s desire has finally come into fruition? Sadly, Watson simply can’t convey those things and admiration and sympathy for her new friends, and so Belle’s decision to stay – previously made because she realised she could achieve her dreams in the castle – switches to being about helping Lumiere et al. Like her relationship with Beast, Belle’s growth has become most relevant to us through how it reflects on other characters rather than herself. That may not be how it was intended, but sadly that’s how it plays out. Watson sadly doesn’t have the range to equally convey both sides the emotional equation of this scene.

“My what a guy…”
Beyond Belle and the Beast, Gaston is the film’s third most significant character, and in the animation, he’s one of the most unique villains in the Disney canon. Possessing a specific kind of evil, he’s a hateful misogynist who embodies the most corrupt of patriarchal values. He’s “the best” man in town because he’s the strongest and the most handsome. Because of this, he deserves the best woman, and that’s the most attractive one: Belle, whose name, of course, literally means beauty. When she refuses his advances, he attempts to corner her with a proposal and later hatches a plan to have her father Maurice committed so he can blackmail her into marrying him.

This is Gaston ’91’s defining act of evil, and it’s an inherently misogynistic one, but it’s removed from the new film. Instead of trying to have Maurice sent to the asylum (which would have been more difficult here as B&TB17’s Maurice is less obviously eccentric), he offers to help him find Belle. He and LeFou travel with him through the woods in search of Beast’s castle before the endless journey and Maurice’s uncertainty about the castle’s location get too much for Gaston. He abandons the plan and confesses that he only joined Maurice because he wants to marry Belle. When Maurice tells him that this will never happen, Gaston punches him, ties him to a tree and leaves him to the wolves.

Again, this is a very minor change, but it’s a significant one. No longer is Gaston a hateful misogynist whose defining act of evil is to try to own a woman, but a more generic kind of evil: an attempted murderer.  This fundamentally shifts Gaston’s dramatic purpose. In 1991, he was the personification of everything Belle is fighting against: the cage she must fly from to live the life she wants. In 2017, he’s the mirror image of the Beast: the man who’s a monster contrasting with the monster who’s a man.  As a result, the story again feels more geared around Beast’s journey than Belle’s and the final conflict is less about Gaston’s outrage at having been rejected in favour of a hideous beast and more about a masculine battle of wits: the good man v the bad man.

Why the change? It’s pure speculation, but Gaston is a real money spinner for Disney. Since 1991, he’s become a mainstay at the theme parks, indeed one of the most popular meet and greet figures the parks have because of his entertainment value. He’s a dumb lunk who says and does idiotic things that we can all laugh at. Releasing a new film where he’s unequivocally a misogynist represents a threat to that. It’s kinda like showing the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark walking out of a concentration camp. Suddenly, the pantomime bad guy has become a little too real, the evil a little too tangible. The laughs we experience at the parks would seem hollow if we’re reminded too clearly of Gaston’s misogyny, and that would hit profitability, so it’s not a surprise that the character’s been tweaked. It’s just a shame that those tweaks, as so many of them here do, come at the expense of Belle.

“Tale as old as time…”
Over 2,500 words into this blog I’ll admit that there’s a certain redundancy in comparing the two films (sorry!). They were made at very different times and, obviously, in two different forms: like-for-like comparison is difficult. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t profoundly important. B&TB17 is a charming, sweet, and sometimes very moving adaptation of the classic story. I’ve seen it twice now and will undoubtedly pick it up when it’s released on Blu-Ray. I may have spent this entire piece critiquing it, but I can still highlight Tobias Schliessler’s sumptuous cinematography, Alan Menken’s soaring score, and Bill Condon’s expressive direction as wonderful elements of a lovely film.

As an adaptation of an era-defining Disney masterpiece, however, it’s severely lacking. The remakes Disney is currently engaged with are interesting and worthwhile, with some reinventing the original without necessarily improving it (Maleficent and Cinderella), and others transforming the flawed source into something incredible (Pete’s Dragon). Beauty and the Beast does neither and so sits as an awkward companion piece. It highlights the advances the art of cinema has taken in the quarter of a decade since the original, but sadly, serves mostly to show how impressive that first outing truly is. Some enchanted roses, it seems, will never wither.

How Spielberg builds tension in Jurassic Park

I’ve been making video essays for a little while now, but recently I bought a new piece of video editing software, which has helped me experiment a little more and improve my offering.

My most recent video is part of my Spielberg Shorts series, which takes a two-minute look at a certain element of Spielberg’s film-making. This one looks at how he uses light and glass to convey tension and vulnerability in Jurassic Park.

I’m always looking to do more videos like this, and am weighing up how to approach one from a Disney standpoint. So stay tuned for that. In the meantime, check out more videos on YouTube.

 

The Strange Case of Ballerina/Leap

A few months ago, I saw a trailer for a charming-looking animation called Ballerina. It seemed to be about a young French girl called Felicie who dreamed of being a dancer and went through all the trials and tribulations you’d expect an aspiring young member of that profession to go through. I decided I wanted to see the film, either at the cinema or on DVD and went about the rest of my day.

A little while after that, I saw a poster for a film that looked almost exactly the same as Ballerina but had a different title. This one was called Leap! and the focus no longer seemed to be on Felicie, but the male lead, who, despite his small cameo in the trailer I saw, was front and centre on this poster, sweeping across frame with a pair of wooden wings on his back and the young girl in his arms. This is, in fairness, the same as the French poster (or one of them, here’s a more ballerina-y alternative), but the change of title shifts the entire dynamic. No longer does Felicie seem in control – it seems like she’s being saved as part of some superheroic act on the part of the boy.

As I often do, I had a little moan about this on social media, and did the same today when I spotted an EW story announcing that Kate McKinnon (who, sidenote, is obviously brilliant) had been cast as one of the stars. This in itself is a bizarre situation, as the film (a French Canadian production but in the English language) has already been released in the UK with one set of actors and now seems to be being re-cast for its US release. An odd situation likely driven by a confusion on the part of The Weinstein Company (distributors in the US) as to how to sell the film.

As this is a thorny issue, I want to point out a few things before I get to the main point. I’m not saying that boys can’t or won’t watch a film about a dancer or that boys and men can’t be dancers. As someone who loves musicals and knows every word of every Disney Princess song ever written, I’d positively encourage it. Nor am I saying that a girl can’t or won’t watch a film about a boy with wings saving a girl. The huge female fanbase the Marvel films have proves that the barriers between what we consider ‘a boys’ film’ and what we consider ‘a girls’ film’ are blurring more and more with each year. And that is a very good thing indeed.

However, what I am saying is that it’s important for young girls to see themselves reflected on screen and that a film about a young girl should be marketed as such. Ballerina is a small animation from a little-known foreign studio. Few people are going to actively seek it out, so it relies on the marketing more than many other animations. If a girl goes to the cinema one day and wants to see a film that will speak to her, she’d likely be more won over by Ballerina than Leap!. By skewing so much at young boys, the marketing is creating a barrier between the film and its intended audience – and that’s a real shame for a film that looks like it has the potential to inspire and empower.

What’s more, it sends out an appalling message. “Sorry girls,” the poster for Leap! seems to say. “You and your interests aren’t good enough. Girls and dancing don’t make money. Boys and heroic antics do.” This is a very important issue and one that struck me when I went to a Women in Film panel at a local film festival a few weeks ago. On this panel was director Bronwen Hughes, whose movies include 1996’s Harriet the Spy. She recounted the story of a marketing meeting for the film, where she was told that Harriet would receive a lower marketing budget than a similarly themed film featuring a boy. The reason? Films with boys do better at the box office.

Of course, as Hughes pointed out, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Give a film about a girl less marketing clout and it’ll obviously fare less well at the box office. How can it possibly do anything else? If the boy film is shouting about its existence while the girl film is having to make do with a broken whisper, then it’s perfectly obvious that the boy film will make more money.

By turning Ballerina into Leap!, the film’s marketing brains are playing into that wrong-headed thinking and making it harder for films about young girls for young girls to find their audience and make money. So ultimately we’re going to see less of those films and young girls will struggle to find films that speak to them and their experiences directly. In an age where Rey and Jyn Erso are taking on Empires that’s – gladly – slightly less of an issue than it’s been in the past, but by the same token, it makes the Ballerina/Leap! switch more baffling.

Girls shouldn’t have to seek films like Ballerina out, and films like Ballerina shouldn’t have to morph into something entirely different to reach those girls. The world is changing, and movie marketing needs to replace its outmoded thinking and move with it. Otherwise it won’t be Felicie who needs someone to swoop in and save her; it’ll be the marketers.

In praise of Buffy (and Xander)

eyepatches-brendon-buffy1

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of one of the defining shows of my childhood: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Broadcast on Thursday evenings on BBC2 in the UK, the show became an integral part of my life in the late 90s and early 00s as I thrilled at Joss Whedon’s wit, intelligence, and delight in subverting cliches.

Buffy herself was key to subverting those cliches, but here I want to write a little on another character: one of the male characters. Yes, I know: writing about a male character in a show as progressive and feminist as Buffy is hardly the smartest idea. But many others have written with much more eloquence than I could about how Buffy made them feel strong or Willow and Tara’s relationship made them feel at ease with themselves. I couldn’t hope to touch on those subjects in the same way, so I’m not going to try.

Instead, I want to write about Xander, because he was critical to my life growing up and I don’t think he’s given the credit he deserves. In Xander, Buffy gave us a male lead who wasn’t at all heroic in the ways we normally see male leads. He wasn’t a muscle-bound action star; in fact, he was pathetically inept when it comes to fighting. And he rarely solved the problems, choosing instead to be the comic relief – the funnyman whose barbs would normally distract from solving the problems.

But what he did have was a good heart: an unwavering sense of morality. We see this in plenty of male heroes, of course, but the likes of Captain America and Superman back up their inherent goodness with their fists; Xander rarely did. He was strong, but strong of mind. He was intelligent, but emotionally intelligent. He saw the goodness in Cordelia and Anya. He brought Willow back from the edge at the end of Season 6. He becomes the most responsible member of the team in Season 7. He was the show’s moral core.

I was never a sporty kid and I was certainly never very strong. I was the good kid, the nice guy, the dependable one. When you’re like that in high school, you’re pretty much wallpaper. But Xander made me realise that maybe that’s ok. Just because you’re ‘the Zeppo’ doesn’t mean you’re without purpose or value. It just means that, like most of the characters Buffy portrayed, you have a value that cliche and stereotype can’t possibly hope to comprehend.

Happy International Womens Day

There are plenty of wonderful women I follow through social media and on this blog, and I want to take this opportunity to say a big hi to all of them.

Yep, that’s pretty much the extent of this post. Literally, that’s it. Because the point of a day like International Womens Day isn’t really for men to pontificate on womens rights. We can’t speak with any level of authority on that. We’re not women.

Instead, we should get on blogs, news sites, social media and any platform where women are expressing their views, and read and understand them. Listen. Learn. Take what’s being said on board. You may not always agree with it but be respectful and empathise.

I’m lucky enough to be connected with some incredible women around the world. I have the great pleasure to work with smart and powerful women, and count many of them as personal friends. One (she reads this blog and I hope she knows who she is) is one of the most awesome people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know and I’ve learned immense amounts from her.

We’re all opinionated and passionate people. It’s who we are as human beings. It’s therefore not easy to be told your wrong, that your view of the world may need to change. But sometimes it does. So listen. Take heed. And allow things to change. It could change the world.