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Siraj Syed reviews Beauty and the Beast: A veritable feast
Siraj Syed reviews Beauty and the Beast: A veritable feast
Beauty and the Beast is a treat for young and old alike, with generous doses of humour and an enchanting musical score to go with it. It is not often that you see a kettle, a tea-cup and saucer, a dressing stool, a wardrobe, a piano, an antique clock, a floating, curvaceous plumage and a candelabra (no, that’s definitely not a typo) share screen space with the titular duo, that happen to be Beauty and Beast in this case. Yes, they are all humans, including a beast, cursed into their present form by an irate sorceress, but retain their ability to speak--and to sing, dance and love--all in glorious 3D Dolby IMAX!
Set in post-Shakespeare Villeneuve, a commune south-eastern France, the story was written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and first published in 1740. It has been filmed many times. A recent paperback adaptation of the translation from French is in circulation since 2014. The film deviates from the original in the back story and the familial aspects of Belle (also known as Bella, both words translating as Beauty), the beauty who prefers books (Shakespeare is de rigueur) over boys, encourages other girls to learn reading (early feminist?) and is infatuated with roses. She spurns the designs of the slimy hunk Gaston, only to fall in love with the Beast, who, in reality, is the exiled Prince, now living in an abandoned castle, right at the back of the beyond.
Belle’s father is wealthy inventor and loves her to the point of madness, after he has lost his wife to the plague, shortly after Belle’s birth. The Prince and his retinue, meanwhile, are paying the price of their indulgent, indolent, decadent ways. When an old, dirty hag interrupts their routine revelry, seeking food, and shelter, even as a storm rages, the Prince, in characteristic arrogance, humiliates her and kicks her out. But the appearance was deceptive; the old hag is not an old hag, rather, an enchantress, and she didn’t come merely to beg. The Prince’s compassion and kindness were under the scanner (Scanner? In 1740?!). A curse is unleashed, and the Prince becomes a Beast--visually, a cross between a huge bear and a ram. Destiny leads Belle to his castle, and she gradually discovers that he is not what he appears to be.
Stephen Chbosky (rewriter) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (adapter) are credited with the present screen version, probably the tenth, which has been released 277 years after the original story was written, in French, and is largely inspired by the 1994 Broadway musical. Greek-American Spiliotopoulos worked as a staff writer at Disney Animation for eight years. Then, he was invited by Universal to work on Wanted 2, and Snow White and the Huntsman. Efforts include The Last Call and Hercules. He swears by Viki King’s ‘How to Write a Movie in 21 Days’.
Chbosky is a novelist, screenwriter and director, who wrote and directed the feature film adaptation of his award-winning novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He has worked in film and television, on projects including the film version of the smash-hit musical, Rent, and the TV show, Jericho. His first film, The Four Corners of Nowhere, premièred at the Sundance Film Festival. It is remarkable that these two diverse talents came together to pen a British-American dark, musical, romantic fairy tale, set in France, with such incredible results. Both deserve kudos for brewing a concoction as smooth as the delectable tea that is seen being poured out of the animated tea-kettle: just the right portions of 18th century ambience, romance, music, fables and foibles, action and drama, humour and repartee.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)’s director Bill Condon is a writer too, has been associated with films like Chicago and Dreamgirls, and two parts of the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn. He had a whole village built (yes, like India’s Ramesh Sippy had done for Sholay, for one) and used Computer Graphics only when absolutely necessary. The reason Prince Beastie appears so realistically feisty can be attributed to ‘face replacement’ at the end of every night, a technique “...that made it as un-animated as possible,” reveals Condon. His treatment is mainly live action oriented, and noticeably adult, without the obvious ‘adult’ content. Incidentally, he skirts around the popular interpretation of Gaston’s minion, Lefou (the madman) as being gay.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, My Week with Marilyn, and Harry Potter accord impeccable credentials to Emma Watson. She charms as ever, if only with that touch of indulgent cockiness. British actor Dan (iel Jonathan) Stevens (The Fifth Estate, The Guest, A Walk among the Tombstones, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), at 34, is a good foil, even if he is himself only at the beginning and the end of the longish movie. This is one beast nobody will hate (alright, you King Kongers, he’s not the only one!), and that should add to the vibes Stevens generates.
Luke Evans (Fast and Furious, The Three Musketeers, The Hobbit) is burdened with the bad guy’s role, but his narcissism, machinations and song-and-dance acts also endear him. After all, he does it all so that he can get wedding Belles to ring! They needed a singer-actor to play Maurice, Belle’s father, and Kevin Kline was just fine. Who can forget Sophie’s Choice, A Fish Called Wanda, The Conspirator, and The Last of Robin Hood? Josh Gad as Lefou will be able to put the two Golden Raspberry garnishings he garnered in 2015 behind him, and add to his plus list, of Ice Age and Angry Birds’s voiced roles.
Hailing from highland Scotland, Ewan MacGregor (Trainspotting, Nightwatch, Star Wars) plays Lumière, an illuminating presence (cannot throw more light on the part, least I become a spoiler). Italian Stanley Tucci (Conspiracy, The Lovely Boners, Winchell, Monk) plays Maestro Cadenza, turned into a piano, and enjoys every bit of it. Cogsworth gets the magnificent personality of Sir Ian Murray McKellen (X-Men, Lord of the Rings, Mr. Homes), who turns 78 this May.
Saving Mr. Banks, Men in Black, and Harry Potter’s Emma Thompson, adds steam to the role of the kettle, doting over her ‘cup baby’ (Nathan Mack as Chip), and aptly named Mrs. Potts. Notable performances come from Gugulethu Sophia Mbatha as the winged temptress (name simplified to read Gugu-Mbatha Raw) and Audra McDonald as opera-singer turned wardrobe, Garderobe, also Mrs. Cadenza. Hattie Morahan is well-cast as Agatha/the enchantress, tripling up as the Narrator. Full marks to the real music maestro, Alan Menken, Cinematographer, Tobias Schliessler, and Editor, Virginia Katz.
An eminently watchable 129 minutes in length, this Disney production opens today in both, the US and India. Beauty and the Beast is the most expensive musical ever, even after adjustment for projected inflation, but the price of a theatre ticket to experience it is more than value for money. Feast your eyes, ears and mind; rejuvenate your system. Whether the nearest cinema hall is in the West or the East, go for this feast.
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About Siraj Syed
Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.
He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany
Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.
He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.
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