The Newest Tale As Old As Time

When Howard Ashman began the titular song of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast with the line “Tale as old as time…,” it wasn’t an exaggeration. Elements of the story can be found in tales 4000 years old, though the most direct link would be the story of Psyche and Cupid from the 2nd Century AD book “Metamophoses” by Platonicus. The modern form dates from France in the mid-1700s, with “La Belle et la Bête” by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, though other authors have added their own touches to the story since then. It’s been filmed many times, including Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bête, and has spawned a couple TV series. The best version, though, has to be Disney’s 1991 animated feature – the first animated movie to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination. I wrote a full post on it after its re-release in 3D six years ago, and it remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Now I must add an asterisk to that statement. If anything, the new live action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is better.

This is the third live action version of a classic Disney animated movie to come to the theaters. Tim Burton started it with his Alice in Wonderland, then Kenneth Branagh did a sparkling non-musical version of Cinderella in 2015. The studio is planning a full slate of adaptations, with the next one to be Mulan next year. (Currently the plan is for it also to be a non-musical.) While I was looking forward to Beauty and the Beast, I admit I had a bit of trepidation as well. The 1991 version brought me to tears in the theater, and I still can’t watch it without choking up at the climax. But the new version isn’t just a hit; it slammed in the center of the bull’s-eye.

Part of it is the casting. I’m now convinced that Emma Watson really is a wizard who’s cast a spell beguiling us. Her singing is just as wonderful as her acting, and her intelligence shines brightly in the character. Luke Evans (Fast and Furious 6, The Hobbit trilogy) manages to make meta-villain Gaston realistic and definitely threatening, while Josh Gad’s version of LeFou is delightful and definitely deeper than the 1991 version. Dan Stevens probably is most known as Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” though now it will be for his performance as The Beast. Even with the massive makeup, you still see through to the Beast’s soul. The film has an overabundance of riches in its supporting characters. The castle is populated with Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. A special delight for me was Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, Maurice.

Another benefit comes from the highly-successful Broadway version that expands the story from the 1991 film’s original 84 minutes. (The new version runs 129 minutes; there are a couple of places where the flow of the story slows a bit, but they’re minor hiccups.) Music from the Broadway version has been incorporated, with lyrics by Tim Rice to music by original composer Alan Menken, and the story has been fleshed out in other ways as well.

The adaptation was done by Stephen Chbosky, who wrote “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” which he both adapted for the movie version and directed. Chbosky had also done the adaptation of Rent, so he’s worked in the musical genre before.  He collaborated with Evan Spiliotopoulos who’d done multiple direct-to-video scripts for Disney and was well-acquainted with the studio’s style. Some of the story departs from the 1991 film and instead incorporates pieces from the 18th Century versions, in particular Maurice’s experience in the Beast’s castle, and expands Belle’s background. They also add some wicked quips, including one referencing the permanent winter surrounding the castle which passes without comment in the animated version.

Director Bill Condon, too, has worked with movie adaptations of musicals before, writing the script for Chicago as well as writing and directing Dreamgirls in 2006. He’d also won an Oscar for his 1998 script of Gods and Monsters, which he directed. Condon isn’t constrained by the visuals of the original. He pays tribute to them occasionally, such as during the “Bonjour” sequence as well as Belle’s “I want adventure” reprise, but overall he smartly reimagines the scenes and sets so they work in the live-action realm.

There was a kerfuffle amongst some conservatives when it was announced a character would be openly gay – no points for guessing which one. It truly is a tempest in Mrs. Potts. Nothing in the film is more objectionable than in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons from seventy-five years ago. They were a bit edgier than Disney, but they were funny then and are still funny today. Also, it’s rather ridiculous to be upset about a gay character in a film about a girl and a horned beast falling deeply in love. Beauty and the Beast is all about seeing the heart and not the externals.

What’s more poignant is why the character’s orientation was included. The lyricist of the 1991 movie, Howard Ashman, was openly gay. He could turn a phrase as well as any of the giants of musical theater, such as Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, or Alan Jay Lerner. With his composer partner, Alan Menken, they’d created the musical version of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Following that, Disney had them compose the songs for The Little Mermaid, the movie that established the new age of Disney animated brilliance. Beauty and the Beast was their masterpiece, but strangely enough it almost didn’t happen. The film was originally written as a non-musical. Ashman and Menken were working on what was supposed to be their follow-up – Aladdin – when Disney execs asked them to save Beauty and the Beast as the production was going nowhere. But during that time Ashman was diagnosed as HIV-positive. It progressed to full-blown AIDS, and Ashman died eight months before Beauty and the Beast was released. That film bears the dedication “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.” The inclusion of a gay character in the live-action remake was a tribute to Ashman.

As most know, Beauty and the Beast demolished the box office records for a March release, racking up over $170 million domestically and passing $300 million worldwide in its first weekend. But for me, its success was me sitting in my seat in the theater with tears streaming down my cheeks at the film’s climax. I knew it was coming, but still I was overwhelmed. I sat in the theater to the end of the credits to give myself time to recover.

When a movie can touch people in the audience with that power, it is truly something beautiful.

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Winging It

Maleficent is the latest example of taking a well-known story and looking at it from a different perspective. Drew Barrymore did it in 1998 with Ever After, a realistic take on Cinderella, while the musical Wicked puts a different spin on Frank L. Baum’s Oz stories in live theaters all over the world now. Last year’s Oz, The Great and Powerful did that as well. With Maleficent, the different perspective is based in motivation.

In the 1959 Disney animation classic, the only motivation given for Maleficent’s cursing of Princess Aurora is that she wasn’t invited to the party – definitely a case of anger management issues. Audiences accepted it unquestioningly, mostly because of the way Maleficent was drawn. She looked so evil it was understandable – even expected. The horns, the black gown, the cheekbones that could cut paper; it plays upon the audience’s visual prejudices so they know she’s B-A-D. As Jessica Rabbit said, “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way.”

Screenwriter Linda Woolverton knows about animation, having written both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Scar in The Lion King could be an uncle of the animated Maleficent with the way he looks and his smooth voice. For Maleficent, though, Woolverton draws on  the lesson of Beauty and the Beast – looks are deceiving. She creates a full backstory that begins during Maleficent’s childhood. There are two lands that exist side by side but who are in conflict – one the land of men, the other one called the Moors, the province of wondrous creatures. It works as a metaphor as well as a geographical description. In the Moors, the young fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) is a benevolent protector of the realm. When Stefan (Michael Higgins), a young boy from the kingdom, trespasses in the Moors looking for treasure, Maleficent forgives him and the two become close friends for years. He awakens feelings of love within the teenaged Maleficent, but then Stephan returns to the world of men.

Years later the adult Stephan (Sharlto Copley) is a page for the king when the sovereign decides to invade the Moor and gain control of its wealth. He marches his army up to the border, but there the adult Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and an army of Moor creatures make their stand and rout the army. Maleficent soars through the battle on her wings and personally defeats the king. When the injured king offers his crown to whoever will destroy Maleficent, Stephan returns to the woods. While he can’t kill her, he does maim her, and then collects his reward, including the hand of the King’s daughter.

From the christening scene on, the film almost recreates scenes from the ’59 version, even the green haze during enchantments. You have the trio of pixies who raise Princess Aurora (played by Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville and Juno Temple), and the handsome prince (Brenton Thwaites) who finds Aurora in the woods shortly before her 16th birthday. But Woolverton makes Maleficent an active player who watches over Aurora as she grows from baby to toddler (played by Vivienne Jolie-Pitt) to beautiful teenager (Elle Fanning). She also gives Maleficent’s crow Diaval a human version (played by Sam Riley).

Jolie handles “evil” side of her character with a light touch that’s wonderful to behold, but her interplay with Fanning is beautiful in the depth of conflicted emotion. Fanning has stepped out of big sister Dakota’s shadow and is now a powerhouse performer in her own right. This movie passes the Bechdel test on gender bias with flying colors. (The test is that a work must have two women who talk to each other about something besides a man; in the course of a year there aren’t many major movies that pass it.)

It’s hard to tell that this is the first directing assignment for Robert Stromberg, although he’s done over 90 films in the visual effects department and has won two Oscars for art direction (for Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland). The visuals for the film are stunning, but they serve the story rather than overwhelming it.

During the end credits there’s a melancholic version of “Once Upon A Dream” from the animated movie, performed by Lana Del Ray. The video combines footage from both films and provides an interesting comparison of the styles.

Over the course of its history, Disney has done much to perpetuate the idea of romantic “true love” as the goal for young women, which has skewed many a person’s understanding of love. Now they appear to be correcting the perception, both earlier this year with Frozen and now with Maleficent. It’s good to see this trend developing, and hopefully it will continue.

Back To The Future Of Gaming

Disney’s new CG-animated film, Wreck-it Ralph, is a paean to the first-generation of 64-bit arcade games that thirty years ago brought kids (and not a few adults) into video arcades, eager to plunk down a quarter to play the square-hopping  Q*bert or the voraciously hungry PacMan.  It’s also meditation on how we can rise above the circumstances we find ourselves in to fulfill our dreams.  It’s also fun.

Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) lives in a dump – literally.  For thirty years he’s been the huge, destructive villain of his arcade game, destroying an apartment building with his ginormous fists while the hero, Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer), repairs the damage with his magic hammer.  The game always ends with the apartment dwellers tossing Ralph off the roof into a mud puddle and then celebrating Felix for saving them.

Once the arcade closes for the night, all the denizens of the games can intermingle at Game Central Station (a power strip) or go into each other’s games.  Ralph attends a meeting of a Bad Guy’s support group with Zangief the Russian wrestler and M. Bison from Street Fighter II, Bowser from Super Mario Bros., and one of PacMan’s ghosts, among others.  As Zangief says, “Just because you Bad Guy, it doesn’t make you bad guy.”

But Ralph doesn’t want to be the bad guy anymore.  He decides to slip into another game the next day to become a hero by winning a gold medal, even though he’s been warned that if you die in another game, you’re really dead – there’s no reset.  He thinks the new game will be similar to his own, but instead he finds himself in a modern first-person shooter, part of a team of space commandoes led by a female warrior named Calhoun (Jane Lynch) that’s tasked with killing alien bugs.  “When did video games become so violent?” asks Ralph as he runs for cover.

Ralph escapes into a candy-themed racing game called Sugar Rush where he meets a young, wannabe racer named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman).  Ralph realizes he has much in common with Vanellope, who’s viewed by the other residents of Sugar Rush as a programming glitch.  He decides to help her get into the game’s race, though it means defying King Candy (Alan Tudyk).

The film was directed by Rich Moore, who’d previously worked on Futurama  and The Simpsons.  He collaborated on the movie’s story with Phil Johnston, who wrote the comedy Cedar Rapids, and Jim Reardon, who worked on Animaniacs and also did the screenplay for WALL-E.  (The screenplay was then done by Johnston and Jennifer Lee.)  They give the movie an irreverent twist, but it’s layered over with a deep warmth for the characters.

The vocal work by all involved is first-rate.  Reilly does sad-sack wonderfully without becoming annoying, while Lynch is the over-the-top movie marine who could take a bite of metal and spit out bullets – until she reveals a softer side.  As King Candy, Tyduk channels the late, great Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter.

A nice touch with the animation is the movement of the apartment dwellers in Ralph’s game.  Although the rendering is in current state of the art 3-D graphics, the characters move in the fashion of the old-style games.

The movie’s not on the level of Up, Toy Story or Beauty and the Beast, but it’s a solid film that is sweet without becoming saccharin.  It’s like the cherry that Ralph shares with Q*bert early in the movie – beautiful to look at, kind of tart when you bite into it, but overall pleasant and healthy.

Tale as Old as Time

Last year’s high-grossing release of the 3D version of The Lion King opened the way for other re-issues in the new format.  Now the process has been done to 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.  While some may wonder about trying to improve on what is arguably the greatest classic animation movie ever made, in other ways it’s appropriate.  Beauty was one of the first animated movies to incorporate computer graphics (the background in the ballroom scene).  The movie is also being shown in its 2D form, so regardless whether you like new technology or are a traditionalist, you have a chance to once again experience the magic of this story on the large screen.

The creation of this masterpiece was an amazing accomplishment, especially when you realize it was almost 60 years in the making.  Walt Disney had wanted to do Beauty as a follow-up to Snow White but wasn’t able to get the story to work.  Translating the written word into the visual medium of animation is not easy.  Disney tried again in the 1950’s, but the same problem arose.  How could the story be adapted?

(There was La Belle et la Bete, a live action version of the story made in France by Jean Cocteau in 1946.  Interestingly, it has a villain who tries to kill the Beast, but who dies in the process.)

By the 1970’s, Walt Disney Studios was in a rut of making inoffensive G-rated live action comedies like Herbie Rides Again and The Apple Dumpling Gang.  There were only 4 animated movies released in that decade: The AristoCats, the very forgettable Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and the small gem, The Fox and the Hound.  In 1977, Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, had quit the company because of its direction, though he remained on the board.  Seven years later he engineered a revolt by the board that brought in a triumvirate of movie men to remake the studio – Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

To reinvigorate the movie making at Disney, Katzenberg made a series of low-budget comedies under the Touchstone label, such as Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People.  He was not an animation person, though he was given the responsibility for that department by Eisner.  At that time the department was lodged in a beautiful, large building on the Disney lot.  Katzenberg needed the space for his live-action movies, so he moved the animators to a warehouse in Glendale.

It was the best thing that could happen, for it gave the new generation of animators a fresh start, freed from the history that permeated the building.  Starting with The Black Caldron, they began producing better and better films: The Great Mouse Detective; Oliver & Co.; the animation/live action hybrid classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit; The Rescuers Down Under; and the first of the modern Disney classics, The Little Mermaid.

The decision was made to once again have a shot at adapting Beauty.  Katzenberg hired English animator Richard Purdum to direct when he couldn’t get his first choice, Roger Rabbit’s Richard Williams.  Several Disney animators moved to England and began work.  After 6 months they showed what they had to Katzenberg – a darker, non-musical version of the story.  It didn’t work for Katzenberg, and the footage was scrapped.  (This had happened before; the first 6 months of work on Pinocchio was tossed out by Walt Disney when he didn’t like its design.)

Instead of shelving the project again, Katzenberg decided to make it a musical and brought in the team that had done Little Mermaid, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.  They were veterans of the New York stage world, having written Little Shop of Horrors together.  Ashman was made the executive producer of the film.  For direction, the job was given to a team, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, doing their first feature film.

Howard Ashman changed the casting process.  They went to New York and held auditions, like a Broadway musical.  Paige O’Hara, who played Belle, was a Broadway veteran.  The young animators didn’t know that Jerry Orbach was a song-and-dance man.  His most recent role had been as the father in Dirty Dancing.  Ashman, though, had Angela Lansbury in mind for Mrs. Potts right from the start.  The surprise casting was Robby Benson as the Beast.  He’d been a heartthrob when younger (Ode to Billy Joe, Ice Castles), but his talent as a voice actor and singer was unknown.

Ashman was responsible for the crucial breakthrough in adapting the story.  He knew they had to decide if the primary character was Belle or the Beast.  To him, the Beast made the greatest changes as a character, so he had to be the primary focus.  That gave him the idea of the opening backstory of the hard-hearted young prince who has a spell cast over him by an enchantress.  From that came the idea that everyone in the prince’s castle had also been enchanted, so we have Cogsworth the clock and Lumiere the candle holder.

Eisner insisted the movie have an actual screenwriter.  Previously, the Disney creative process was to storyboard the animation and work from that.  Linda Woolverton was given the assignment, though she clashed with the animators when they changed her script in the storyboarding process.  To give her greater understanding, she began working directly with the animators.  That was when everything began to click.  There was still a place for play: Cogsworth’s suggestion of the last thing guys usually gave girls – “Promises you don’t intend to keep” – was an adlib by David Ogden Stiers.

By the time some color animation was finished, it was clear to the animators they were creating something special.  Katzenberg decided to show the movie as a work-in-process at the New York Film Festival.  The animation was about 70 percent done but some of the scenes were pencil sketches.  It gave the audience an idea of all the work that went into an animated feature.  The audience got caught up in the movie just as if it were a Broadway play, applauding after the songs and laughing.  (The special edition DVD has this version of the movie available for viewing.)

Beauty and the Beast was originally released in November, 1991, to critical acclaim and strong box office returns.  It made almost $350 Million worldwide in its initial release, and was second at the box office for its 3D release twenty years later.  But it accomplished two things that no animated movie had ever done before.  It won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical) and it was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  It lost out to Silence of the Lambs, but it did win Oscars for Best Animated Feature, Best Score, and Best Song.  Actually, it had three songs nominated – Belle, Be Our Guest, and Beauty and the Beast, though the final song was helped to its win by the Grammy-winning single, a duet between Phebo Bryson and an unknown new singer from Quebec by the name of Celine Dion.  The Academy selection process has now been changed so that no more than two nominated songs can come from the same movie.

Beauty and the Beast has more emotional depth than any other Disney animated movie.  About the closest in impact would be the death of Bambi’s mother.  Here you have a hero struggling under the weight of a curse, trying to make amends for his earlier actions.  You also have a pro-active heroine.  With the classic stories, the Disney princesses weren’t really in control of their fate.  They were waiting for their Prince Charmings to rescue them.  Belle doesn’t have any time for such nonsense.  To save her father she’ll give up her liberty, but even then she doesn’t surrender.  And then there’s Gaston – how many fairy tales have a handsome, strong villain?  When the curse is reversed and the Beast becomes a handsome prince again, Belle doesn’t really believe what has happened, until she looks into his blue eyes, the same eyes that the Beast had.  She must see that his soul is the same as it was, before she believes the miracle and the whole curse is reversed.

For all of us who view ourselves as ugly ducklings or beasts, this movie was a tonic for our hearts.  My reaction the first time I saw it was tears at the climax and joy at the end.  When I watched it again this week, if anything I started blubbering earlier in the movie.

Sadly, one person was not there to share the movie’s success.  Howard Ashman was ill with AIDS from before the production started, though no one knew it at first.  As the production went along, though, it became clear that Howard was racing against time.  He lived just long enough to complete the music and know the movie was well on its way to completion.  He died March 14, 1991, at the age of 40.  The dedication at the end of Beauty and the Beast reads:

 To our friend, Howard,

Who gave a Mermaid her voice,

And a Beast his soul,

We will be forever grateful