The handsome prince, in Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s famous fairytale Beauty and the Beast, is unkind and pretentious. So when a fairy – disguised as an ugly old hag – asks the prince for shelter from a rain in his massive mansion, he refuses. The ugly old hag changes back into her natural form, a fairy, to put a curse on the prince. He is turned into a hideous beast, and will stay that way unless a woman learns to love him despite his appearances and breaks the curse.
But who could love such a beast?
Let us backtrack a tad.
What is love anyways?
My dictionary suggests, among other things, it is a tender affection for someone.
But can love really exist without at least some level of physical attraction between the couples?
If the answer is yes, then Beauty and the Beast is a very alarming fairytale, one that should be kept away from children. Just think about it. Belle, the “Beauty” in the fairytale, falls in love with the Beast without ever knowing he would turn into a handsome prince. Belle may very well find herself disappointed in the end.
Look at me, trying to rain on Disney’s parade, Beauty and the Beast, which is currently playing at multiplexes around the world. As Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version asks of its audience in its opening sequence, let us take up a “childlike simplicity”. The fairytale is about not judging a book by its covers; of being able to look past skin color, race, sex or sexual preference. A lesson many grownups direly require.
But first, Cocteau’s version. The French poet’s adaptation of the fairytale is more straightforward than any of the Disney incarnations. Watching the film a second time, I thought it was a little dry, especially in the performances and the dialogue. It is not in any way comparable to Cocteau’s similarly phantasmagoric Orphée, his masterpiece. But the eerie, surrealistic special effects Cocteau employed, amateurish by any of today’s standards, and fairly obvious as to how they were done, are striking on their own terms.
This latest manifestation of the fairytale is different, even in terms of plot. Belle (Emma Watson) lives alone with her widower father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), in a small French town full of illiterate people. The movie makes it a point to highlight that Belle is strong willed, intelligent and above all well-read. She is the feminist version of the fairytale’s Belle (though very attractive, to appeal to the men market), there is not a bone in her body that wants to be tied down to a man, least of all to the conceited womanizer Gaston (Luke Evans).
As the breadwinner of the family, Maurice ventures out of town to sell some of his exotic inventions.Along the road, having lost his way in the forest, he stumbles upon a mansion that seems to be alive. A bit unnerved he tries to leave, but not before he plucks a rose from the garden. This makes the proprietor mighty angry, and Maurice is imprisoned. Somehow though, Belle manages to swap places with her father. In that mansion, it will be her (the beauty), the proprietor (the beast) and a whole host of peculiar characters who can talk (a candelabra, clock, teapot, piano, feather duster and wardrobe).
This movie is not an actual adaptation of the world famous fairytale – there are discernible differences – but a remake of Disney’s own 1991 animated feature of the same name. That film was charming, and a rather refreshing take on a tried and tired storyline. And together with Aladdin, the film signaled a turning point in the declining fortunes of Disney. In making this remake, the studio must have felt as if they were paying their due to that movie.
But did they?
Fairytale live-action special effect extravaganzas are what the studio specializes in. The very name of Disney conjures images of magic and outlandish monsters. It is the only studio that can make extremely expensive, thematically innocuous movies without seeming naive. This version of Beauty and the Beast is immensely disappointing though. The filmmakers did not attempt to emulate the emotional intensity of the 1991 version, but fetishize it with 21st century computer generated live-action imageries. I concur, the film’s visual effects are attractive, and one musical number, featuring the French candelabra, is impressive.
But so what?
We are too far into the digital age, no amount of special effects wizardry can in itself satisfy the intellectual resonance a movie is supposed to deliver. This is especially true when it is obvious none of the filmmakers (the ones responsible for character and narrative composition) even showed up for work. The cast is even worse, with the possible exception of Kline as Maurice. It is a truly sad year for acting when CGI gives a better performance than humans.
The lesson the film gives is an antithesis to its construction. Beauty and the Beast is supposed to say to children that people should be judged not by their outward appearances but with what is the inside. On the other hand, the movie itself emphasizes beauty far more than it does subject. Behind all the beautiful, fancy, multimillion dollar special effects, Beauty and the Beast is just as shallow as the character it most lampoons, Gaston.
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