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Movie Review: “Beauty and the Beast”

Disclaimer up front: I am probably not the best person to review this movie. I’ve only seen the original 1991 animated version twice, and I didn’t grow up knowing all the songs by heart, so take anything I say here with a large grain of salt. Also, I’m probably not the target demographic, so make of that what you will.

If 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” was “great” (and it most definitely was), 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast” is merely “good.” While this live-action update (directed by Bill Condon, and anchored by Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast) is a highly faithful recreation of its predecessor, for the most part the movie doesn’t advance much beyond the original film.

I’ll skip the plot summary, because if you’re reading this review you’re almost certainly familiar with the basic Disney template (bookish Belle goes to the cursed Beast’s castle to rescue her father, finds herself falling in love with the Beast, and is pursued by obnoxious meathead Gaston).

On a lot of fronts, Condon delivers: the music, for one thing, is every bit as good as you remember. The core musical motif is just as emotionally evocative as it was in the original, and the songs are strong across the board (Emma Watson can’t sing, but with the exceptions of “Belle” and “Something There,” she doesn’t really have to). “Be Our Guest” is just as surreal a fantasia as it was in the original, and “Gaston” and “Kill the Beast” are grandly staged barnstormers that are impossible not to love (they outdo the 1991 versions). Angela Lansbury is missed on the title song, but Emma Thompson is a generally satisfying replacement. And best of all, the Beast gets a brand-new “Phantom of the Opera”-style aria—“Evermore”—that’s an absolute showstopper, and probably the best song in the film.

(Also, just for the record: the “exclusively gay moment” in this movie is tamer than your average Shakespeare play. Like most Disney-related controversies, this one is extraordinarily dumb.)

But alas, despite its many virtues, this reincarnation of “Beauty and the Beast” doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessor.

I may end up being the only person who thinks this, but I’m inclined to think something aesthetically important was lost in the transition from animation to live-action. In the 1991 version, a lot of the movie’s rococo designs faded into the background; here, they’re on full HD display, and at times feel overpoweringly garish. The production design is breathtaking, but perhaps could’ve been a bit more understated.

Perhaps most disconcertingly, the new “Beauty and the Beast” radically reconfigures the moral architecture of its predecessor. In the 1991 film, the Beast is cursed to his monstrous form after selfishly refusing to offer shelter in his castle to an enchantress disguised as an old crone. One of the most unsettling aspects of the original was the implicit notion that the entire staff of the Beast’s castle—Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and everyone else—was cursed to suffer for the Beast’s sin. In the 2017 version, Belle (channeling Hermione) inquires about this. Mrs. Potts explains that the Beast’s father was a cruel man who treated his son badly, and the castle’s staff did nothing to intervene; accordingly, the “corporate punishment” they suffer is entirely merited.

The thematic impact of this change is hard to overstate. In 2017, the Beast’s initial selfish act—refusing to show compassion to the needy—isn’t really his fault: he’s just the product of a bad upbringing, and everyone else around him is partly responsible for what went wrong.

As the movie progresses, Condon doubles down on this odd dynamic. At the end of the 2017 film, when the Beast lies dying after an attack by Gaston, the enchantress herself reappears to lift the curse she initially placed on him, turning him from a beast back into a human prince. Contrast this with the 1991 movie, where the Beast morphed back into human form without the enchantress’s intervention.

The moral weightiness of the 1991 film was predicated on the idea of transformative love—the idea that through sacrificial self-giving, one’s essential being could be changed and redeemed. The Beast’s redemption in 1991 (with no onscreen enchantress in sight) was tied to his inner transformation: the fact that the spell lifted at the end of the film was a sign that something deep and real had happened within the Beast’s heart. In 2017, the Beast’s redemption is predicated on the enchantress’s external observation of his behavior: in other words, she just thinks he’s turned his life around, and accordingly lifts the spell.

The cumulative effect of these changes is to render the 2017 Beast a pawn of circumstance, not a moral agent in his own right. Not only is the Beast not really to blame for selfishly refusing to show compassion to the enchantress, he’s also not really required to undergo an internal transformation. As a result, the “Till We Have Faces”-esque emotional power of the earlier film gets lost.

Not everyone will agree with me, and if you’re a longtime fan of the 1991 version, the 2017 film is an absolute must-see. Indeed, it’s hard not to be swept aware in the sheer magic of the experience. But five years from now, if I get the urge to watch “Beauty and the Beast,” I’ll probably turn to the animated version: there’s a simple elegance to the original film that trumps the grandness of the 2017 movie. That version—and that greater story of inner transformation through selfless love—really is “a tale as old as time.”

VERDICT: 7/10
A faithful, if not wholly satisfactory, retelling of the Disney classic.

Normalized Score: 3.4

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2017 in Fantasy

 

Literature Commentary: The Dark Tower Series

Most fantasy novels are terrible. I say this as someone who’s read countless examples of the genre (and written a dozen high-fantasy novels that’ll never see the light of day). The great majority of post-“Lord of the Rings” fantasy books (especially in the young-adult realm) are jammed with stock characters, hackneyed plot structures, and endless wish-fulfillment sequences. If you’ve read one, you’ve pretty much read them all.

I don’t read much fantasy anymore—there’s simply too much good nonfiction in the world, and I’ve finally built up a sufficient base of knowledge to understand how complex concepts intersect. But I’ll admit it: there’s a part of me that still loves the genre for what it can be. Fantasy fiction is one of the world’s last irony-free domains: a space where good and evil, virtue and vice, and heroism and villainy still mean something real. (That’s why, in a cynicism-drenched age, it’s so easy to mock it.)

I’m told that heroin addicts, after their first exposure, find themselves perpetually “chasing the dragon”—desperately trying to experience anew their first incredible “high.” That’s how I feel about the experience of reading certain books. Some have been good enough to send me ranging hither and yon across the genre in search of a similar experience…even if it means having to wade through a lot of dreck.

To be more specific, only three fantasy sagas—Terry Brooks’ “Heritage of Shannara” quartet, Tad Williams’ “Otherland” series, and now “The Dark Tower”—have ever left me with an overwhelming sense of transcendent awe (Dan Simmons’ “Hyperion” comes closest in the sci-fi realm). This sense is deeper than simply the feeling of “having read a good book.” Even years later, thinking about these books’ imagery and themes stirs within me the sense that this story channels something that is true, good, and beautiful. Brooks taps into the theme of duty to family and to heritage, a duty that transcends personal desire (Russell Kirk would be proud); Williams chronicles the desperate search for meaning within an age fragmented by technology and deconstruction; King recounts humanity’s obsessive desire to know the deepest truths of reality, at any cost.

I didn’t initially think I’d find myself writing this review, but something about Stephen King’s seven-volume opus (which I finally finished last month after reading it off-and-on for years) struck a chord within me. It’s not often that I find myself once again experiencing the beautiful, terrible awe that my heart craves, but “The Dark Tower” delivered…and I’ve only appreciated it fully in hindsight.

“The Dark Tower” is a sprawling epic that weaves together Arthurian legend, Western cinema, postapocalyptic horror, and Tolkienesque mythology. Our hero is Roland Deschain of Gilead, an Old West-style gunslinger and last scion of a vanished kingdom (think Aragorn meets Clint Eastwood). His quest: to reach the mysterious “Dark Tower,” a sort of central fixed point at the heart of all existence, and defend it against the legions of chaos seeking to destroy it and end the world. Alongside a band of companions—Susannah, an apprentice gunslinger with multiple personalities, Eddie Dean, a reformed drug addict, and Jake Chambers, a boy with psychic sensitivities—Roland ventures across the varied planes of existence (yes, this is a dimension-hopping, reality-bending series) while uncovering the secrets of his own past.

The saga rests on a complex metaphysical architecture that explores questions of free will, determinism, and divine providence. The prime mover in King’s “Dark Tower” universe is ka, a mysterious force that blends ideas of Greek hamartia and Calvinistic predestination. Ka brings Roland and his companions together, and pushes them toward their respective destinies, but at the same time this ka is deeply bound up with the choices made in Roland’s past. King captures, better than any other genre writer I’ve encountered, the complex ebb and flow of choice and inevitability.

The Dark Tower itself—or rather, what it represents—is the fundamental linchpin upon which the novels turn. Roland’s quest for the Tower is a search for God, a search for himself, a search for home, and a search for truth all bound up into one odyssey. What price would you pay to achieve this goal? King asks his reader. Is life about the journey more than the destination…or is the destination worth any cost? Without ever explicitly saying so, King confronts the philosophical dilemmas of modernity head-on.

That’s not to say this is a perfect book series. Like most King works, the Dark Tower series is wildly uneven, and frequently finds itself weighed down by odd tangents, overdeveloped backstories, and unnecessary secondary characters (for that matter, all of King’s books probably could lose a full 30% of their page count with no harm to the story). Book five—“Wolves of the Calla”—is particularly bad (and it’s worth pointing out that since each book averages around 500-600 pages, this series requires a substantial time investment).

The dull parts aren’t what I remember most about “The Dark Tower,” though. What I remember are the breathtaking, evocative images King conjures forth—a standoff between good and evil in a bone-riddled desert, a lonely beach between worlds, a possessed train, a fallen Emerald City, and the cloud-shrouded Dark Tower looming over a field of blood-red roses. All these and more blend together into a single haunting experience of grandeur.

Perhaps most contemporary fantasy is terrible because it is deeply narcissistic, filled with super-powered protagonists blasting through anything and everything in their paths. What inspires real awe isn’t the actualization of our own desires, but rather an overwhelming sense of smallness in the face of true ultimacy. Only in experiencing powerlessness can we feel wonder—but “powerlessness” isn’t a sentiment that sells lots of books. So at the end of the day, perhaps I’m destined to keep chasing the awe-dragon.

But if “The Dark Tower” demonstrates nothing else, it proves that beauty in prose is out there, for those with the wherewithal to seek it.

VERDICT: 8.5/10
Upon lingering reflection, “The Dark Tower” genuinely becomes more than the sum of its parts.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2017 in Fantasy

 
 
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