Director: Bill Condon
Stars: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans
There seems to be an unspoken opinion in certain circles of film criticism that populist cinema is just plain bad. Bad in execution, bad even in principle. That by attempting to appeal to everyone, you implicitly censor yourself until there’s nothing to say. It’s a sweeping generalisation, and a foolish one. In his often essential 15-hour documentary The Story Of Film: An Odyssey, Mark Cousins repeatedly refers to the Hollywood movie making system as ‘the bauble’; it’s pretty, distracting, lightweight… but the dreams it holds are easily shattered. It’s a hollow thing. Often this is a fitting analogy, and no studio is more ‘the bauble’ than Disney; a Goliath factory of cinema.
Disney’s recent decision to produce a slew of high-budget ‘live action’ remakes of a host of their most beloved animated features has been met with skepticism. In part because these titles are intrinsically linked to childhood in Western society, leading to the question… well, why? The cynical response in cartoon vernacular would be the flashing of dollar signs over Mickey Mouse’s eyes. Nevertheless, the project has gotten itself well underway now. Bill Condon’s take on Beauty And The Beast joins Kenneth Branagh’s sturdy reworking of Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s visually dazzling take on The Jungle Book.
Where Favreau played down the musical theatrics of his ward, Condon elaborates. His introduction of Belle (Emma Watson) and the oh-so-provincial country village that she calls home is a masterclass in musical cinema all by itself. Baz Luhrmann would be proud. It is wholeheartedly throwback, dizzying in its technical bravura, wondrously indicative of ‘the bauble’. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s 1991 animated film (and Best Picture nominee let’s not forget) contains some of Disney’s most beloved numbers, and Condon’s film plays on their legacy at every opportunity it’s afforded. There are, in fact, more songs in his film. The playbook has been expanded, built upon. Admittedly, these extras don’t especially hold a candle (pun intended) to the biggest belters already committed to movie memory, but still they underline Condon’s opening statement of intent; this is escapist, fantasy cinema of the glossiest, most frivolous design.
And because it commits itself to this end, it’s a great success. Production value is second to none, costumes are exquisitely detailed, the shimmer of studio gloss has rarely seemed so dazzling of late. Where Damien Chazelle’s ode to the musicals of the 50’s La La Land painted with a sorrowful, lamenting heart, Condon’s brush explodes across the canvas with celebratory glee. In 2017 Beauty And The Beast isn’t just a celebration of the 1991 animated film (which it is slavishly faithful to), but a celebration of ‘the bauble’ in general, and, at it’s most playful, the largess of Broadway musical theatre stomping the boards too. That big-chested, pompous, waiting in the wings magic. In a word? Showmanship.
While this might suggest a pure nostalgia piece, Condon’s film goes some way to suggest its relevance as a modern work also. Much has been written of the film featuring the studio’s first explicitly gay character (Josh Gad’s iteration of LeFou), as though Disney hasn’t been progressively pushing at its own boundaries steadily over the last few years. It’s another small step, delicately, even cautiously made, but it fits the film wholesale (this is musical cinema, after all). In fact, it’d be barely notable if it weren’t for it’s very notability as a belated first.
But it is not the only nod to modernity. Whether intended or not (and given the level of post-production required here, I’m inclined to believe it is coincidental), there’s a rather timely swipe at the post-truth Trump mentality that comes into play once the villainous Gaston (Luke Evans) starts spinning lies to the villagers in order to rile them into a lynching party. His pantomime bluster and pomposity only too readily recalls a certain satsuma-faced Commander In Chief. In keeping with this, Condon’s film advances the previous notion that there is no greater weapon against such ignorance than a well-informed mind. Beauty And The Beast (as it was to a prior generation) is a love-letter to literacy. If there’s an empowering take-home message for the little ones, it’s to get wrapped up in books.
So there’s worth here for those skeptical of the film being paper-thin or sugar-weight, but first and foremost this is intended to capture and transport. Condon’s in safe territory having helmed the last two Twlight films. He knows that if you’re going to give yourself over to it, you’re going to have to go all the way. Talking cups and clocks and candelabrum (Ewan McGregor’s best work in years) are an easy sell in an animated film where unreality is etched into every line of ink, but their CG presence in a film of actors and sets feels inherently counter-intuitive unless you’re prepared to give yourself to it. Surrender! Surrender! Submit! Submit! It’s easy to do as Condon lays on the charm of guiding us through the moves already taught to us by Trousdale and Kirk. He presents these fantasies with bold confidence, daring you to accept or get out of the theatre.
Watson makes a great Belle; her feminist celebrity persona etches a defiant spark into the character through familiarity, bringing her a straight-backed assertiveness. Dan Stevens is for the most-part unrecognisable as The Beast (spoiler; long hair doesn’t suit him), but his presence is absolutely felt in the mo-capped creation that skulks the darkened halls of his fairytale castle. Both show they have the singing voices to carry this (see Luke Evans also, in an arguably film-stealing tavern knees-up), and they are ably supported by a rich supporting cast, itself pleasingly diverse.
If there’s a failing here, it will perhaps be felt by those that still pine keenly for a more direct interpretation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s original tale. This is Disney repurposing itself, like a rock band taking one of their old favourites and giving it a retool to fit in with their revival world tour. The growing Disney live action cinematic universe feels, unsurprisingly, similar to the MCU (hey! also Disney!). These are at best updates, at worst rehashes of pop culture legends that we could recite to one another at will. The indulgence, ‘the bauble’ is in retelling them with such grandeur. Cinema can be a political vehicle or a mirror to our truest selves, a vehicle of subtlety and nuance and there is great, great value in that. But it can also be a whirlwind, a flashy conjuror’s trick or a firework display… and there is value in that as well. Condon invites you to relish in the joy of such fancies. He makes for a fine host. Be his guest.