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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The Last Shall Be First

Sometimes a clichéd story can be done for the umpteenth time before, and because of a spark of magic it becomes fresh and fun. Jon Turtletaub’s new film, Last Vegas, fits that description. The script by Dan Fogelman doesn’t cover any new territory in any new way. Fogelman did much better with his Crazy, Stupid, Love script a couple of years ago, as did Turtletaub with Cool Runnings, While You Were Sleeping, and Phenomenon  back in the 1990s. The difference maker here is having five Oscar winners working together for the first time and nailing their roles.

In a prelude, we see four friends – Billy, Paddy, Archie and Sam – as 12-year-old hellions in Flatbush. The four friends stick together, though there is one threat to their closeness as Billy and Paddy compete for the attentions of Sophie. Fast forward fifty-some years. The four friends are now scattered. Sam (Kevin Kline) is married to Miriam (Joanna Gleason) and living in a retirement community in Florida. Archie (Morgan Freeman) is living with his son’s family in New Jersey, where they try to protect him from having another stroke. Paddy (Robert DeNiro) married Sophie, who passed away the previous year. Now his young neighbor is trying to match him up with her mother.

Billy (Michael Douglas), a successful agent in Los Angeles, had been a confirmed bachelor. In the course of a eulogy at a friend’s funeral, he proposes to his live-in girlfriend Lisa (Bre Blair) and they decide to get married in Las Vegas. When Billy calls Archie and Sam to give them the news, they suggest they have a bachelor party in Vegas before the wedding. It’s up to Archie and Sam, though, to get Paddy there; the old friends are estranged since Billy bailed on giving the eulogy at Sophie’s funeral the year before.  When they arrive in Vegas, they catch a performance by lounge singer Diana (Mary Steenburgen) that captures their attention, and once again Billy and Paddy may be competing for the same girl.

Much of the plot falls into Vegas fantasy, such as Archie bankrolling their stay by hitting it big at blackjack, Miriam telling Sam to find his spark of joy (and equipping him with a Viagra pill and a condom), and the casino comping the friends to a huge suite. What makes it work is that the actors seem to be having a ball working together. It harkens back another bit of Vegas fantasy – the original Ocean’s Eleven with Sinatra, Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack playing together while making a movie. There is a connection to that earlier time, as when he was a kid Michael Douglas had hung out with the Rat Pack, since his father Kirk was friends with most of them.

One wonderful discovery is Mary Steenburgen as a singer. The actress hadn’t really sung in decades when she took the role of Diana, but she worked with a vocal coach to prepare for the scenes where she’s performing. She does it beautifully, and it’s perfectly understandable how Paddy and Billy could both fall for Diana. The audience falls for her as well.

There’s no deep life message here, other than that every day above ground is another chance to find happiness. Some of the humor is a little crass, but overall it delivers laugh-out-loud fun, as well as an on-screen clinic in acting.