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.

Survival Guide

Stephen Chbosky’s bestselling YA novel “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower” was published in 1999, and has – deservedly – taken its place among the best of that genre.  Several producers wanted to adapt it as a movie, but Chbosky held onto the rights, planning to do the movie version himself.  He went on to write the screen adaptation of Rent as well as create and produce the post-apocalypse TV show Jericho.  He finally put together a package, with John Malkovich as one of the producers, that allowed him to both write and direct the movie version of his book.  It was worth the wait.

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower takes place in mid-1990’s Pittsburgh.  It begins as the book does, with Charlie (Logan Lerman) writing a letter to an unnamed person about what’s happening in his life.  He’s about to enter high school, which is enough of a psychological challenge on its own.  However, Charlie has the added baggage that, the year before, his best friend had committed suicide, an event that sent Charlie into a mental tailspin that he’s pulled out of only recently.  The first day is about what Charlie expected at the school, with two exceptions: in his shop class, there is a senior named Patrick (Ezra Miller) who delivers a sharp parody of the teacher before the man arrives; and Charlie’s English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) recognizes Charlie’s intelligence and seeks to open him up to the broader world of books.

Along with Charlie’s fragility, his parents (Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh) are dealing with his oldest brother going off to college.  Charlie’s older sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) is in a relationship that, Charlie discovers, is abusive.  Charlie asks Mr. Anderson about why she would accept such a relationship, and Anderson responds with the wise words, “We accept the love we think we deserve.”

Charlie attends a football game alone, but when he sees Patrick there he moves over to sit by him.  They’re soon joined by Sam (Emma Watson), Patrick’s stepsister, who’s also a senior.  They invite Charlie to a party at their house and, under the influence of some “happy” brownies, he displays the wit and intelligence he’s kept bottled up.  He impresses Sam and Patrick’s friends, the wallflowers of the title.  He also tells Sam about his friend’s suicide, and Sam and Patrick decide to take Charlie under their wings.  Both of them are outsiders as well, Patrick because he’s come out as gay and Sam because she got a reputation as a party girl when she was a freshman.

The story covers Charlie’s initial year of high school, and a little bit beyond, in a series of beautifully-observed incidents.  Chbosky uses the inner dialogue of Charlie’s letter-writing to both comment on scenes as well as to foreshadow what is coming.  As time goes on, the dramedy swings away from the comedy side and goes into some deep, dark places, but you’re willing to follow because you care about these characters.

Chbosky gives the film a feeling of authenticity throughout, helped by filming on location in Pittsburgh.  This is a case were being director, screenwriter, and writer of the source material isn’t vanity, but is instead necessary because of his depth of understanding of the characters.  He coaxes wonderful performances from his cast.

Sporting her pixie haircut and a perfect American accent, Emma Watson leaves Hogwarts behind once and for all.  In Perks she shines, as does Ezra Miller.  He captures the happy-go-lucky, gay (in the old meaning) persona of Patrick, but there is also a seething anger beneath the patina, motivated by his still-in-the-closet boyfriend as well as the society of that time.

The anchor of the story is Charlie, and Logan Lerman does the role proud.  He’s been active in Hollywood for years, having played Christian Bale’s son in 3:10 To Yuma and starred in the title role of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, a sequel to which will be coming out next year.  His role as Charlie is a quantum leap above his previous performances, showing Charlie’s vulnerability, awkwardness, and brokenness.  As Charlie works out the event in childhood that left him fractured, we feel his pain and, finally, the lifting of the burden.

High School life often revolves around the music students are listening to, and the movie captures this perfectly.  The soundtrack is excellent, especially with the use of David Bowie’s “Heroes” as a pivotal piece.  Sometimes the heroic victory is getting through a day and learning that the next day can be better.  It’s a message that should be shared with all the wallflowers out there.