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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Happily Ever After

Last year Disney had two box office hits – Maleficent and Into the Woods – that took the fairy tales that have been the studio’s specialty for decades and turned the stories on their ear. Now they’ve gone in the opposite direction and released a faithful live-action version of the studio’s animated classic, Cinderella.

The story qualifies as a “tale as old as time,” as the song in Beauty and the Beast puts it. The European folk story existed long before it was committed to paper, and the classic version, Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon,” was written in 1697. The Grimm boys created their own version in the 1800s, but the classic feature of the story, the glass slipper, is only in Perrault’s take on the tale. On the surface, it seems an anachronistic story for today, with the paternalistic element of Cinderella being saved from servitude by the prince. One of the best film versions, Drew Barrymore’s Ever After, threw that out and had Barrymore’s Danielle save herself before the prince arrives. But when you go back to Perrault’s tale, the two-part moral at the end makes it appropriate for almost any age. The first moral is that beauty is a treasure, but graciousness is priceless – something to remember in this Internet age! Perrault’s second moral, though, gives the story a darker edge. “Without doubt it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense. These, and similar talents come only from heaven, and it is good to have them. However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother.”

Screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy, Antz) has followed the 1950 animated version closely, but has also expanded the story in strategic places, especially with the influence of the mother (Hayley Atwell, looking completely different from her Agent Carter role in the Marvel universe) and father (Ben Chaplin). It underlines the difference of the world once the stepmother (Cate Blanchett) takes over, as well as gives Ella (Lily James) strong motivation to remain kind and courageous in the face of it.

It would be easy to overdo the evil stepmother, especially in light of the shallowness of her daughters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holiday Grainger). The two girls are like the animated characters come alive, but Blanchett rises to a higher level. Her embodiment is as smooth as a snake and completely devoid of cartoonish attributes. She too easily could be someone you’ve met, if you were ever so unfortunate.

Just as fine a job is done by Lily James, who is best known as Lady Rose MacClare on “Downton Abbey.” It’s not easy to play a pure and courageous character without coming across as saccharin, but she manages it. She’s ably assisted by Richard Madden as the Prince. Another addition by Weitz has the Prince and Cinderella meeting before the ball. In fact, the meeting is the motivation for the Prince to open the ball to all the women of the kingdom, in the hopes of meeting Cinderella again. Madden’s prince is charming, but with so much more depth that the love story makes sense. (One does have to wonder, though, why Madden would take a role that includes a wedding scene after his experience as Robb Stark on “Game of Thrones.”).

The supporting cast is first-rate, with Derek Jacobi as the King, Stellan Skarsgard as the Grand Duke, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother.

But it is director Kenneth Branagh who deserves a great deal of praise for whipping up this confection and making it both tasty and pleasing to the eye. He brings to the film the feel of a Shakespearean play, like “Romeo and Juliet” with a happy ending. The camerawork is gorgeous, while the pacing of the story is just right. There’s also a bit of the operatic element that made Thor such a success.

Also deserving of praise is the costume design by 3-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell, who has worked on Martin Scorsese’s films since Gangs of New York and also did Young Victoria and Shakespeare in Love. She uses a brighter color palate that fits beautifully with the fairy tale essence of the story and also provides a counterpoint to Cinderella’s blue ball gown. The CGI team works magic throughout the film, particularly with taking the mice of the animated feature and turning them into a realistic version. Even though they don’t burst out singing “Cinderelly, Cinderelly,” they’re charming and they do save the day. The team gets to go wild with the Fairy Godmother’s preparations for the ball, as well as the stroke of twelve midnight, and both sequences are pure delights.

By going closer to the Perrault story from almost 320 years ago, Branagh and crew have created a fresh and refreshing version. That is a true accomplishment.

Into the Labyrinth

Since the 1930’s, fairy tales have become Disney-fied.  We’ve come to expect that the prince will kiss Snow White or find Cinderella (with the help of some happy singing mice).  Enchanted was a delightful play on the Disney conventions, but even there true love wins and everyone lives happily ever after, except for the wicked queen.

But fairy tales can be dark, fearful things.  In the original Hans Christian Andersen story, The Little Mermaid dies heartbroken.  Only Stephen Sondheim could write a catchy show tune about that, and he did play off the fairy tale theme brilliantly with Into The Woods.   The nearest Disney came to pungent, heart-grabbing emotion you can find in a fairy tale was with Bambi’s mother.  Fairy tales and fables can raise our spirits and challenge us to suspect that there is more to this world than what we can comprehend.  In that sense, the fairy tale lets children practice faith.  It’s a lesson we adults would do well to remember.

One movie that captured the dangerous world of fairy tales with a heartbreaking beauty was Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).  Guillermo del Toro, the writer and director, had worked in the fantastic before with Mimic (1997), Hellboy (2004), and The Devil’s Backbone (2001).  That final movie shares several elements with Pan’s Labyrinth, with is setting in Spain during civil conflict and the mixture of the supernatural with a violent natural world.  But where Backbone was an effective ghost story, Pan’s Labyrinth aims at a higher goal, and hits the bull’s eye.  The opening shot, of a young girl lying on the ground staring at the camera as blood runs back into her mouth, grabs you, and the rest of the movie won’t let you go.

The story begins with a journey in 1944.  Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a girl of around 12, is accompanying her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to an outpost in a heavily-forested part of Spain.  That is where her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), is battling guerillas that are still fighting against Franco’s Fascists even after the end of the Spanish Civil War.  Her mother is in the midst of a difficult pregnancy and has to stop because of illness.  During the stop, Ofelia explores the forest around them and finds a carved stone face.  From it emerges a flying insect that looks like a praying mantis on steroids.  That night at the outpost, the insect returns to Ofelia and reveals she is a fairy.  She guides Ofelia into an ancient maze behind the outpost and to the center where the girl descends into a pit.  There she meets Fauno (Doug Jones) who tells Ofelia she is a princess in another world.  The princess had slipped away to explore this world many years ago, but was blinded by the sun and forgot who she was.  She eventually died, but the king knew her soul could return in a different body.  He placed the labyrinth as a portal for her to return, guarded by the faun.  But Ofelia must accomplish three tasks before the next full moon to prove she is the princess.

Playing in counterpoint to Ofelia’s story is Vidal’s sadistic and violent campaign against the guerillas.  Caught in the conflict is Mercedes (Meribel Verdu), the housekeeper for Vidal whose brother is leading the guerillas.  Vidal’s methods are draconian.  He gathers the food supplies at the outpost and rations them out, so there’s not enough food for people to share with the rebels.  With any rebels caught, he brutally tortures them to make them reveal anything they know, and sympathizers are summarily killed.

The acting is stellar.  Lopez fills Vidal with a horribly calm and intelligent violence that can explode at any moment.  His polar opposite is Mercedes, whom Verdu imbues with nobility even as she reviles herself for cowardliness at not rebelling openly against Vidal.  She also becomes a surrogate mother for Ofelia.  Baquero is a wonder, projecting the innocence of youth even as she sees more than any of the adults around her, both in Pan’s world as well as Vidal’s.  The movie’s score is exceptional, richly melodic and melancholic.  It’s a perfect fit for the story.

Del Toro creates a fantasy world a mere step beyond reality, especially with the three tasks Ofelia must accomplish.  While the first has a high level of ickiness, the second is truly scary, when Ofelia’s disobedience puts her in the path of the Pale Man, a creature who’s a bizarre twist on the old phrase, “put your hands over your eyes.”  The final task at the climax of the film, though, will break your heart.  But in that breaking is the route to ascend to wonderful heights.  As the tag line from the film says: “In darkness, there can be light.  In misery, there can be beauty.  In death, there can be life….”  If you find yourself in tears at the end of the movie, know that you are not alone.  They were running down my face the first time I saw this beautiful movie.

Even with English subtitles, the movie was a hit in the US, earning almost $40 million at the box office, and garnering 6 Academy nominations.  (It won for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Makeup.)  It didn’t win for the Best Foreign-Language film that year.  That prize was taken by another film that I will cover in my next post.