Thursday, January 24, 2013

It May Have Helped Reinvigorate Disney, But Beauty And The Beast Is Much More Erratic Than Extraordinary.

The Good: Moments of character, Musical numbers, Charm factor
The Bad: Mortgages sensibility to service the classic story, Inconsistent themes, Choppy direction, Often spends time evaluating its own magic, as opposed to embodying it.
The Basics: While aesthetically pleasing, Disney’s Beauty And The Beast holds up poorly under close scrutiny.

I can always tell when my wife is not feeling particularly well, even if she does not take to the bed. Instead, the moment I come home or enter the living room and discover her wrapped in blankets watching Disney’s animated Beauty And The Beast repeatedly, I know she is ill. Beauty And The Beast is like comfort food for her, probably as a result of her childhood love of the film. So, I have been hesitant to watch Beauty And The Beast for the purpose of reviewing it. And yet, today that is exactly what I did.

Beauty And The Beast followed The Little Mermaid as Disney revitalized its animated film division after years of stagnation and failures. Returning to vibrant filmmaking, Beauty And The Beast impressed audiences and critics at the time to such a degree that it earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Given how my Best Picture Project led me to realize that not all films that won the Best Picture deserved to, I have little problem critiquing a nominee and suggesting that it did not really deserve to be nominated. Beauty And The Beast is one of those films.

Disney did a decent job with Beauty And The Beast, but to flesh it out to its full running time (with its additional song in the Special Edition presentation, it makes it up to 90 minutes, up from the theatrical release 84 minute length), the film frequently belabors itself – especially with the introduction of (usually) inanimate objects that talk in the palace of the cursed prince. Moreover, I was surprised by how choppy a lot of the animation, especially in early scenes like the moments Belle’s father is chased by dogs, was.

For those unfamiliar with it, tells the classic fairy tale reimagined as an animated musical. Set in a small village in France, Belle lives as a bookworm, the daughter of an inventor who is viewed as crazed by the townspeople. Belle encourages her father and he heads out to the fair to make wow the country with his inventions when his horse is spooked and he is chased by dogs into the castle of a cursed prince. Transformed into a hairy beast by an enchantress he spurned while human, the Beast throws Belle’s father into the dungeon. Avoiding marriage to the town’s idiot stud, Belle searches for her father and finds him in the dungeon. There, she offers the Beast a trade: she will stay with him if the Beast will let her father go free. The Beast agrees and sets Belle up in a room of her own, with the only rule being that she cannot go into the castle’s west wing.

After rejecting the Beast’s offer of dinner together, Belle leaves her room and has dinner with the enchanted dishware and the talking clock and candlestick, Cogsworth and Lumiere. Tricking them into heading off to the library, Belle sneaks into the west wing where she discovers trashed rooms and the remnants of the Beast’s prior life as the prince. She also discovers the magic rose and becomes aware of the curse; that the Beast must get someone to see him as beautiful before the last petal on the rose falls and he is trapped in his monstrous form forever.

Beauty And The Beast is good, but it is a classic tale that needs something distinctive to make it stand out. The novelty of simply being an animated or musical version of the story is not really enough to sell the serious cinephile on it, though the music is wonderful. When the plot is pretty much a known quantity, it comes to character and acting to sell the work as a quality film. Beauty And The Beast is a mixed bag.

Like most Disney movies, Beauty And The Beast contains a generic, absolute evil villain. The Beast is not that villain. Gaston, self-centered moron that he is, has a lackey, but he uses the head of the local asylum to incarcerate Maurice (Belle’s father). The administrator becomes the absolute evil and his monolithic nature is disappointing because he has no concrete motivation (he acknowledges that Gaston’s plan for Maurice is monstrous, but eagerly goes along with it). Similarly, the treatment of women in Beauty And The Beast is incredibly problematic. Opposite what appears to be a strong female character (Belle, who nevertheless is annoyingly unclear in her rejection of Gaston – instead of saying she is not interested, she opts for the tongue-in-cheek, requiring interpretation “I don’t deserve you.”) are the townswomen who are the generic swooning blondes. The plump teapot and wardrobe fulfill the mentor roles (smart is unsexualized) while the French featherduster that is the love interest of Lumiere is dumb and easy in his arms. With thirteen writers, not one manages to break through all the stereotypes to create a truly powerful woman or complete cast of female characters who are complicated. Instead, most are “types” and the only one that is truly smart and desirable is Belle.

Belle is an interesting character, but she is hardly as deep as one would like from a protagonist. Rather than deepen her character or progress the layers of her transformation from fear to love of the Beast, Beauty And The Beast is fleshed out with songs that give the inanimate objects (who are all transformed humans) more screentime.

On the flip side, the voice acting is homogenously excellent. Established performers like David Ogden Stiers, Jerry Orbach, and Angela Lansbury are joined with flawless performances by Paide O’Hara (Belle) and Robby Benson (Beast). The characters all have the same level of emotion projected through their actors and the music is memorable.

The story is classic, the performances are good, but the direction is erratic; scenes like the big dance number were very clearly given priority treatment over many of the early sequences and that diminishes the film some. Still far better than Beastly (reviewed here!), Beauty And The Beast is a success more of style and marketing than it is of actual substance.

For other Disney animated films, please visit my reviews of:
Wreck-It Ralph
Toy Story 3
A Christmas Carol
The Princess And The Frog
The Incredibles
Lilo & Stitch
Monsters, Inc.
The Lion King
The Little Mermaid
Lady And The Tramp
The Sword In The Stone
Sleeping Beauty


Check out how this film stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index Page where the films are organized from best to worst!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Man! That's one of my all time favorite films!

    1. I've been hearing that a lot (my wife loves it!). I think I was being generous with the 5.5! Objectively viewed, there is almost no romance in the actual film. Instead, the time is eaten up with the villagers rallying to attack the castle and the whole subplot involving Belle's father. It's a fun film, but even the animation is problematically erratic.

      Thanks for reading!