IN LIVING COLOR
Main Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens
Director: Bill Condon
I had a busy morning today doing exclusive on camera interviews for CNN, MSNBC and Fox regarding the rather unfortunate clip of me on the set of Love Potion Number Ten. The one of me being blasted by a cherry blossom petal drop gone awry. Someone told me Anderson Cooper said it was like watching someone being caught in an explosion in a Pepto-Bismol factory. I am going to have to speak to his mother about him. I pulled out all the stops during my interviews, giving a lovely monologue regarding the art of the theater, the difficulties in getting special effects just right, and the lovely pink hue of the flowers (now available as Petal Pink from Les Couleurs de Vicki Lester from MNM Enterprises’ line of home improvement products). Of course, they’ll probably edit it down to 90 seconds of pabulum, but it’s still national exposure. We finished the tapings without too many embarrassing questions about whether someone of my age should be attempting stage flight. (The one blonde airhead who brought it up was immediately reminded that I am and shall always be an ever youthful thirty-nine and that I am in tip top shape thanks to the ministrations of my tap therapist, Lulu Pigg, and my new nutritionist, nurse Jackie who keeps me on the straight and narrow regarding my health.)
Then it was off to the Pantages to begin working on getting all the kinks out of Love Potion Number Ten. Even though the setting is modern day DC, our genius producer, DeWolfe, is giving us an 18th century founding fathers look in order to bring in all the Hamilton fans. My first act finale farthingale is a lovely piece of chinoiserie peacock blue silk. (It looks suspiciously like one I saw in The Marriage of Figaro at Opera Theater of Pacoima last season but I’m sure the production team would never stoop so low as to recycle a costume on a star of my magnitude). The new hip hop score by Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins is also complete and I’m really happy with my second act number about the elderly senator who makes impertinent advances on the gondolier while visiting The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas for a fact-finding mission on the gaming industry. (We’ve added a subplot about Congress and the Supreme Court battling over a national lottery.) It takes full advantage of my high C accompanied by drum machine and electric bass.
When we broke for the evening, I was somewhat at loose ends. Normy is off in Shreveport working on a commission for their symphony, a tone poem on long distance trucking. I called Jonathan Tongue, my driver, and had him drop me incognito at the local Cineplex where I took in the early show of Disney’s new blockbuster live action remake of their classic cartoon, Beauty and the Beast. The Disney corporation has decided that rather than spending money on original scripts and novel ideas, that they can redo their entire film library with live actors and CGI magic for a new generation. The results have been somewhat erratic, lavish affairs full of the latest visual effects, but occupying a sort of no man’s land between animation and live action. The suspension of disbelief of an audience is different between the two forms and, when things waver between the two, it’s hard to stay anchored in the world. This was particularly apparent with The Jungle Book where realistic animal interactions suddenly became musical numbers and the transition was jarring, to say the least.
Beauty and the Beast is more successful than some of the previous titles. First off, the original cartoon from 1991, was as strong a piece of animated cinema as Disney has ever produced, with a first-rate script, score and voice casting. Twenty-five years later, the ballroom scene to the title song continues to enchant a new generation. Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos have taken Linda Woolverton’s original screenplay and added just enough in terms of depth and subplot to meet the needs of a live action film. Belle (Emma Watson) is a bit more fiercely independent than she was and there’s more explanation as to why she doesn’t fit into her quaint French provincial town. She and her father are refugees from Paris and she has education and believes that girls have the right to the same opportunities as boys while the villagers believe otherwise. The relationship between Belle and her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) is also fleshed out a bit more and we learn what happened to her mother.
The general outline of the Beauty and the Beast plot hasn’t changed. Maurice becomes lost on his way to market and seeks refuge in an enchanted castle inhabited by a ferocious beast (Dan Stevens under pounds of prosthetics and CGI facial enhancements). Years before, the beast was an uncharitable prince who was transformed as punishment, only to be restored if he can learn to love and be loved in returned. Belle comes after her father and volunteers to take her father’s place as the beast’s prisoner leading eventually to an awkward and later a very adult romance blooming. The prince’s servants, transformed into household objects by the curse that created the beast do their best to help things along. They include Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, the clock, Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, the candlestick, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, the teapot and Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, the wardrobe. They are predominantly voices emanating from ingeniously animated objects but we catch glimpses of their human forms at beginning and end. As the antagonist, we have Luke Evans as the brutish Gaston and Josh Gad as his comic relief sidekick, LeFou, who remain human throughout.
The score includes all the Menken/Ashman standards from the original Beauty and the Beast including the infectious ‘Be Our Guest’ done as a full Follies Bergere number by the dining room dishes, the opening number ‘Belle’ which introduces our heroine, her situation, and acts as a perfect ‘want’ song for our heroine, and Emma Thompson’s sweet rendition of the title number. Some new numbers have been added with lyrics by Tim Rice but while they are serviceable, none compete with the originals. The whole thing is in the capable hands of director Bill Condon who as writer and director has helped bring such musicals as Chicago and Dreamgirls to the screen and has a good understanding of what it takes to make a musical movie work for a modern audience. The cast, many of them veterans of musical theater and film, have no problem selling the songs and taking the audience along for the ride.
By the end of Beauty and the Beast, I was fairly enchanted but something about the whole thing kept me from completely losing myself in this amazing musical world. I decided that while I liked it a whole lot, I didn’t love it even though I wanted to. In thinking back as to why I didn’t, I think it boils down to the film being too cartoony for live action but not cartoonish enough to take me into a whole different universe. This is, I think, the central dilemma of the whole current Disney project. One of the next one’s slated, Dumbo, is based on the 1941 classic that’s only just over an hour long with only four songs. I can see it collapsing under its own weight if over expanded.
The performances range from serviceable to good. I was most taken with Ewan McGregor (someone get him a full-fledged musical leading man role) and Ian McKellen, both of whom make the most of their roles, even if they’re primarily replaced by moving animated metal through much of the film. Emma Watson, in the central role, isn’t quite as bossy as her Hermione Granger but bursts of her keep coming through which is at times off-putting. Dan Stevens is fine but the make-up tends to get in the way. Fortunately, he has lovely and expressive eyes that let us know what’s going on. Much has been made of Josh Gad’s LeFou being given a somewhat ambiguous sexuality in his hero worship of Gaston, but it’s subtle enough to go over the heads of those under twelve and those older won’t care as it’s just a couple of throw away moments that make perfect sense.
A small fortune was spent on the art department in creating the Beast’s castle. (And I think they lifted the design of the great hall from my grand staircase at Casa Maine. I must speak to my attorneys about that.) However, the mishmash of Rococo, Art Nouveau, and Gothic Revival that floods the screen have nothing to do with French design and is overly busy, even for my taste. I kept wondering about how an army of servants transformed into various pieces of furniture could possibly keep all those curlicues clean. Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are lovely, but again a bit of a hodgepodge of styles and based on the original animations. Belle’s red cape and gold ball gown and the beast’s dress blues are all there.
Beauty and the Beast is worth seeing, very pleasant, appropriate for the whole family, but not as likely to achieve the classic status of the original cartoon.
Delicate mechanics. Dirty laundry. Wolf pack. Topiary garden. Gratuitous magic book. Flying feather dusters. Forbidden tower room. Flying buttress duel. Stampeding villagers. Cross dressing sidekicks.
photo by minds-eye