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.

Mouse House Movie Club #10: The Enchanted Christmas

“Then somebody bends… unexpectedly.” Yes folks, this is the quality of humour you can expect here. Sorry

Ho Ho Ho! Merry Christmas! Mouse House Movie Club’s gone AWOL for a few weeks, but that’s just because I’ve been super busy and stuff like that. It’ll be back properly in the New Year and is here now with a bit of a Christmas Special. Because all great things have Christmas Specials, and you’re not seriously going to tell me that Mouse House Movie Club isn’t a great thing. Are you? Are you!?

Disney have done a few different festive-themed films over the years and having caught Mickey’s Twice Upon A Christmas on TV over the weekend, I was considering writing this entry on that. It’s actually pretty good, and features a great Mickey and Pluto story. Dogs and Christmas? Is there anything better? No, chums. No there is not.

However, while wrapping presents, I put in the Beauty and the Beast Christmas Special, The Enchanted Christmas, and was hugely impressed by it. It’s a surprisingly dark, genuinely worthwhile, and very charming film that takes place in the middle of the original movie, and significantly alters the way you perceive it. What I’m saying is that it’s the Rogue One of the Beauty and the Beast universe. And I’m entirely, 100% per cent sincere about that.

You'll catch cold like that, Belle
You’ll catch cold like that, Belle

Yeah, but aren’t Disney sequels terrible?
Well, no not really. During the Renaissance (and for a little while after it), Disney put their classics and modern releases into the sequel churner, pushing out spin-offs and TV series to the likes of Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Made by Disney’s television animation wing, and often telling stories that frankly didn’t need to be told, these films are not great pieces of art and, even as an avid defender of them, I’ll admit that some are downright awful and/or baffling (the time-travel based Cinderella 3: A Twist in Time).

Sadly, fandom being fandom, all the films have been tarred by the same brush, so even the good one (Cinderella II, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Peter Pan: Return to Neverland) are seen as poor. The Enchanted Christmas has largely escaped the sharper end of fan anger, mostly because it’s a Christmas film, and, well, it’s bloody Christmas, innit, come on! But it still gets lumped into that homogeneous mass of Disney direct-to-video mediocrity, and its position is made worse because it’s a midquel, a sequel subset so ludicrous nobody could come up with a proper word to describe it so they just cobbled some letters together and hoped for the best.

PARENTHESES! If you don’t know what a midquel is, it’s a story that takes place during a gap in a previously established story. It’s a nonsense word, but amazingly, it’s not even the most nonsensical word out there. There are also sidequels (stories which take place alongside existing stories), pseudosequels (sequels which have little in common with their predecessors but are still judged to be sequels) and most laughably at all macroquels (sequels which cover events before, during, and after the previously existing story). I am not making this up! This is an actual type of spin-off, and according to Wikipedia, 300: The Rise of an Empire is one of them.  2016, man: is there no insanity too insane for it?

Still with me? Good. Ok, so The Enchanted Christmas is a midquel, and it takes place directly after the moment in the original when Beast saves Belle from the wolves. It’s Christmas (because, y’know, it’s a Christmas film and it’s hardly likely to be set in May, is it?!) and Belle really wants to throw a Christmas party. The Beast, on the other hand, does not. (It’s called dramatic tension, folks. Come on, keep up.)

Tim Curry dressed as a villainous organ
Tim Curry dressed as a villainous organ

You’re a mean one, Mr Beast
Of course, that in itself isn’t a particularly sensational revelation. At this point in the original film, Beast isn’t in the best of moods, and the idea of celebrating Christmas probably wouldn’t appeal much – especially as he was struck with the Enchantress’s curse during the festive season. By all rights, The Enchanted Christmas should be a pretty standard story then, and it could well have turned out to be just that had the script run with the original concept of making Gaston’s vengeful brother the villain. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea, it’s just a bit of a mediocre one (though admittedly it worked pretty well for Die Hard With A Vengeance two years earlier. Y’know, I’d say Vengeance is as good to the original, even though most deem the original to be an unimpeachable classic. I mean, it’s good and all, but Vengeance has Frozone and Scar in it, and I’m still not exactly sure how they solved that puzzle with the water. I hate maths. It sucks.)

But anyways, I digress.

Ultimately, the brother plot was abandoned and instead a villainous organ was introduced. Yes… a villainous organ. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha. But a villainous organ voiced by Tim Curry, making this villainous organ at least 35% more delicious than any other villainous organs you may be acquainted with. His name is Forte and before being turned into a villainous organ, he was the disconcertingly grey-faced palace musician who enjoyed scowling, sucking up to the Prince, and playing… an organ! Dun-dun-duuuuuuuun!

Forte was ignored by Prince Adam when he was a human, but has now won a measure of respect and influence in his new giant organ form. He’s the Prince’s confidante, hearing all his concerns and frustrations from the confines of a dark room high in a secluded part of the castle. He’s chained to the wall so can’t do much beyond sitting around and waiting for Adam to come vent to him, but that doesn’t seem to bother him much (for some reason). He’s just desperate for Beast not to turn back into a human so he can continue to hang around with him. Hey, even deliciously evil giant organs need a buddy.

Wrong Prince Adam
Wrong Prince Adam

So what you have in The Enchanted Christmas is a villain who, despite being static throughout the entire film and despite being part of a tale whose outcome is beyond doubt, is surprisingly threatening. Part of that’s down to Curry being thoroughly delicious, part of it’s down to Beast being as angry as he is at this stage in the original, and part of it’s down to Forte being rendered with the same dodgy CG that the Hydra from Hercules is (weird). But more than anything, it’s because Beast seems genuinely vulnerable here, Forte representing his inner monologue and everything he hates about himself. If you’ve ever been alone with your dark inner thoughts, you’ll know exactly how scary that can be.

I think it’s perhaps going a little too far to liken The Enchanted Christmas to the complex emotional landscape Elsa inhabits in Frozen, but there are similarities. Like Elsa, Beast hides himself away from the world, convincing himself he’s happy in the state of loneliness he’s built for himself because that’s what he needs to tell himself to get by. Fighting against it is so much more difficult and so much more unpredictable than simply giving in. Accepting your fate is easier and safer. Better the devil you know, and all that.

In light of all this, Beast’s anger and frustration (here and in the original) becomes much more understandable. Being a dick because you’ve been turned into a beast is fine and all. You could be less of a dick, but hey, we get it. Being a Beast is bad. But being a dick because you’ve been turned into a beast and have Tim Curry dressed as a poorly CG’d giant organ whispering nasty stuff in your ear every time you feel down? Well, if that happened to me, I think I’d be pretty down too. I getcha Beasty boy.

Top-level punning
Top-level punning

Jingle Belle
The Enchanted Christmas also brings fresh insight into Belle, who seems even more heroic in light of the film’s events. In the original, Beast’s anger is a plot point: a feature of the narrative that needed to be established and overcome. It’s like the Ark of the Covenent or the Death Star plans: a MacGuffin that’s there to reflect, primarily, Belle’s character and the tenacity with which she goes about getting what she wants from life. Here, however, it’s a real character point; indeed a real character – Forte. So while Beauty and the Beast‘s main threat was a moron (a very very very very very manly moron, but still a moron), The Enchanted Christmas‘s is anger, depression, and frustration.  There’s absolutely nothing funny or charming about Forte like there is about Gaston.

Listen to his song. While Gaston got to brag about his manliness and expectorating prowess, Forte tells Beast not to fall in love in a fantastic villain song that even manages to nod to the original’s classic ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Here’s a cut of the lyrics.

As soon as your heart rules your head
Your life is not your own
It’s hell when someone’s always there
It’s bliss to be alone
And love of any kind is bad
A dog, a child, a cat
They take up so much precious time
Now where’s the sense in that?

Love takes the wildest heart and makes it tame
If you’re turned on, then just turn off
Emotions are a thing all great men overcame
Please, don’t make this grande catastrophe
Don’t get attached to anyone or anything
There’s nothing worse than things that cling

Pretty brutal, pretty scary (and more than a little reminiscent of Elsa’s ‘conceal, don’t feel’ mantra). Yet Belle’s kindness perseveres: she never takes her eye off her goal, and never lets Beast’s Forte-driven depression set her off her path. She represents kindness, love, and compassion in the face of Forte’s sheer hatred and misery, and she mounts a fierce opposition, despite the fact she never really faces off against him. Indeed, her lack of interaction with Forte may make her faith in the Beast and love as a whole even more heroic: she doesn’t have the luxury of knowing where his misery is coming from like we do.

Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow…
I know what you’re thinking: Paul, for a post that opened with a GIF of a dog doing Yoga, this has been awfully depressing. And yes, you’re right. But then, The Enchanted Christmas isn’t an entirely happy-go-lucky film, and indeed many of the best Christmas things aren’t. Look at It’s A Wonderful Life or listen to ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ (from Meet Me In St Louis) if you want proof. Both are, of course, about the magic of the season and how festive goodwill can turn around even the darkest of days, but for that to work, the day has to be dark: George Bailey has to be standing on that bridge ready to jump in the water. Festive? Not really. Dramatically important? Yes!

The Enchanted Christmas sits alongside films like It’s A Wonderful Life (in theme more than quality) because it’s all about finding the goodwill amongst the bad, the light in the dark, the hope in the despair. It’s a little naive and certainly not as emotionally complex as more recent Disney films that have taken on the theme (Frozen and Inside Out in particular), but it’s a hell of a good effort for a 1997 direct-to-video feature and deserves respect for that alone. Add in to it the fact that it genuinely enhances the original and has Tim Curry as a deliciously evil organ and you’re on to a winner.  A big old festive, slightly depressing, weirdly CG’d winner.

Until next year folks, Happy Holidays! Have a lovely time whatever you’re celebrating and however you’re celebrating it.