Saturday, March 18, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: Then and Now [Contributor: Melanie]

Did I decide before walking into Beauty and the Beast that I was going to enjoy the heck out of all two hours of it? Yes. Was I correct? Yes. I own several editions of the 1991 film and saw the Broadway show twice. I was first in line for this movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an excellent film by any stretch of the imagination — which is unfortunate because the original held the distinction as the only animated feature nominated for Best Picture for almost 20 years before the Academy enlarged the nomination pool. But, this isn’t a movie meant to be looked at for its merits within the world of academic cinema. It’s more like the flesh on the bones of the original that so clearly plays to millennials who owned the original on VHS and grew up alongside Emma Watson.

It felt, in a lot of ways, like the screenplay was checking off boxes of all those lovely, glaring plot holes the original had floating around. Timeline contradictions? Handled. Is every single piece furniture in the castle a once-person? Nope, answered. Why exactly do the villagers — and LeFou — blindly praise Gaston? Turns out they don’t. Where is the Enchantress for the rest of the movie? A lot closer than you think. And on it goes.

But that’s not all this movie does. It offers backstory we didn’t have before on a number of characters. Belle’s father is less of a bumbling inventor and, in fact, a quiet and lonely artist whose daughter is all he has left of the woman he loved. Turns out Belle — as with her fairy-tale counterpart — was born in Paris. Her starving artist family was broken up when plague took her mother and her father was forced to flee to protect his daughter.

Gaston is a war hero (you know, from The War™ that always seems to have taken place just a few years before the start of all our fantasy movies) that feels a bit too big for the small town he’s retired in and — according to Luke Evans — might be suffering from some PTSD that informs a lot of his impulsive actions. LeFou probably gets the most depth of all as Gaston’s friend and sidekick (who often is found attempting to imitate Gaston’s charm and presence) who slowly turns on his buddy (and unrequited love interest?) when he realizes just how unhinged and downright evil the man has become (“There’s a beast running wild, there’s no question/But I fear they’re all monsters released” he sings during a new refrain in “The Mob Song” while glaring at the village’s fearless leader).

And then there’s the Beast himself (once again unnamed though some interviews list him by his original, if unused name, Prince Adam) gets a bit of backstory as well. Like Belle, his mother died when he was young; but he was left, instead, with a loveless father who raised him to be a pompous, narcissistic, and shallow young man. On that front, even his budding relationship with Belle gets a makeover. While the initial thaw in their ice was, as before, the wolf attack and subsequent Intimate Healing (thanks TV Tropes), they bond over shared pain and loneliness and a love of the escape that books and stories can bring (sometimes literally thanks to an enchanted spacetime bending atlas the Beast uses to allow Belle to see her childhood home in Paris once more).

So how does it stack up with all these additions? Well there is a certain amount of beauty (ha) in the simplicity of the original. Even if we have many Buzzfeed listicles telling us just how much that movie made absolutely no sense when you pick it apart for just 30 seconds, it, very weirdly, worked. The fact of the matter is, you’re redoing a classic, so no, it’s not going to be as good. But it sure was a ton of fun to watch. And the great thing about this version was that a lot of care found itself in the script of the film. Writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos wanted to give the why to a lot of character choices made in the original that we were willing to take for granted. Belle’s decision to take her father’s place was the result of guilt (as in the original fairy tale, she asks for a rose that her father tries to pluck from the Beast’s garden), the small mindedness of the village and their dull everyday lives were also the result of the curse, Gaston’s attraction to Belle is far less cartoonish and rooted in some complicated psychological problems on his part.

This felt like a real movie, a real story. And with echoes of the 1946 Jean Cocteau version alive and well in the visual imagery of this edition, it makes for a very entertaining night at the movies.

The original was bit of an accidental masterpiece for Disney and responsible for a whole new age of animation. But, the funny thing is, for most of its production and even a bit of the final product, Beauty and the Beast was kind of a dumpster fire.

The story of this film begins all the way back in the 1930s when Walt was first considering adapting it after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs took off well with the American public. Attempts to adapt it went well into the 1950s but animators and storyboard artists found it too much of a challenge to conceivably adapt (gee, I wonder why). It was only after the success of The Little Mermaid and Who Framed Roger Rabbit in the late 1980s that they decided it was time to give it another shot.

Halfway through production of this film, everything was scrapped. In 1989 the project, which had been in the works since 1987 was starting anew with directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. For a film with a 1991 release date, this might as well be no time at all to complete the project. Evidence of this time crunch is visible in the film’s many plot holes and recycled animation at the end from Sleeping Beauty. But, the film found new life in the form of Alan Menken and his handpicked lyricist, Howard Ashman, a genius of a man who would posthumously become a Disney legend. The inclusion of these two cemented the film into a musical rendition, steering away from the more classical, Jane Eyre-style approach for a lighter, Broadway-style musical.

But Ashman’s contributions were about more than just his incredibly clever lyrics. It was him who first suggested the servants of the castle actually be made into full characters and not just faceless appliances wandering around. It was also through this collaboration between Ashman, Menken, Wise, and Trousdale that the inclusion of the male suitor as the story’s main antagonist was introduced in the form of Gaston who represents another great departure for Disney: the traditional male protagonist as the villain, which had all sorts of undertones in the changing gender dynamics of 90s workforce. This new version was approved in 1990, giving them a little under two years to get the project done.

Production, compressed, took place across California, Florida, and New York (where Ashman was slowly dying of AIDS complications). As with much of the production of this film, the scene that would become the film’s most iconic moment, almost never came to fruition. Beauty and the Beast represents the first (well, technically the second) collaboration between Disney and Pixar. Did you ever notice that the ballroom scene utilizes crane shots and sweeping camera pans? That’s thanks to the CAPS technology developed by Pixar that allowed them render 2-D characters into a 3-D environment that would mimic the omniscient camera of live-action. The technology only worked enough for use in one scene, and that nearly didn’t come to fruition with the “ice capades” back-up plan that would have seen Belle and the Beast simply dancing under a spotlight.

As for that iconic music? Well Menken and Ashman wanted the movie to resemble a Broadway musical (it’s no wonder it eventually ended up there). The chose distinct styles for the songs (“Belle” is an operetta piece, “Be Our Guest” as a traditional chorus line number, and “Beauty and the Beast” as a solo ballad) and recorded the music with a live orchestra as opposed to dubbing the vocals in later. But there’s stories in the music as well. “Be Our Guest” was originally going to be sung to Maurice before they decided using a showstopper on a minor character was a waste. And Angela Lansbury originally didn’t think her voice and character were right for the title track and had to be convinced into recording a demo. That one take was the one that ended up in the film and went on to win an Oscar.

Disaster struck when Howard Ashman eventually succumbed to his complication with AIDS before the film was finished. But a moving dedication to his work was featured in the credits: “To a man who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul.” The production continued and found itself selected to be shown at the New York Film Festival with only 70% of it complete, the 30% filled in with rough animation and storyboards.

The result was a 10-minute standing ovation.

The rest, as they say, is history. The film went on to be nominated for Best Picture and won two Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, and five Grammys. The American Film Institute has featured it on four of its best-of lists and been nominated for four others and the National Film Registry selected it for preservation in the Library of Congress in 2002. And it didn’t stop there, it went on to become Disney’s first stage musical after the success of the Disneyland stage show (which, fun fact, was originally staring future Wicked star Stephanie J. Block as Belle).

So, what’s the takeaway? Well, without Beauty and the Beast Disney would be in a very different place. A remake of it, while may be misguided or completely miss the mark (it does not, however) is not there to be seen on its own or even there to be completely compared to an original that changed Disney animation in the 90s and millennium. This version is simply there to remind us why we loved the original in the first place with an updated set of eyes (Belle’s all about dat education reform for both little girls and hulking Beasts) and to prove that there’s a reason this story is still a timeless work of art.


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