Thursday, January 31, 2013

Beauty and the Beast (Erich's Take)

Show of hands. Who’s excited for F This Movie Fest 2? Trick question, I can’t see your hands on the Internet. DOUBLE trick question. The answer is obviously “everybody.” Look, I’m not in the business of picking a favorite movie from 1991, partly because there are so many good ones to choose from, and partly because no one is offering to pay me. That’s how business works. TRIPLE trick question.

Instead, let’s talk about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, and the middle of three Disney flicks in a row I saw in the theater with my family. I hadn’t seen it in more than a decade when I borrowed it last weekend from the library, to share with my three year old daughter. I wasn’t sure she’d sit through the whole thing (it’s still a struggle at her age), but I figured she’d like it.

The movie begins with the story of a selfish prince who refuses help to an old woman who offers a rose in return for shelter. The woman turns out to be an enchantress. She curses the prince, and turns him into a beast. She tells him that the spell would be broken only if he can find love and be loved in return before the last petal falls from the rose. Otherwise, he would remain a monster forever. Barely ten minutes into the movie and my daughter was already hiding her eyes. A great start.

She perked up a bit with the introduction of Belle, a smart, carefree girl who frustrates the villagers in her small, French town because they can’t understand why she spends all her time reading books. Equally baffled is Gaston, the local hunk slash the French equivalent of “bro.” He wants to marry her because she’s pretty, and can’t understand why she rebuffs his flirtations and impromptu wedding ceremonies. Belle doesn’t like him because he’s a dumb jock. Belle isn’t just a Disney heroine. She’s a geek girl, and not just because she’s into Furries (zing!). She loves books filled with adventure and romance. Her favorite, as she sings, has a prince in disguise. Vive le foreshadowing!
Belle’s adventure begins when her Doc Brown-esque inventor father goes on a trip and gets lost at night in the woods. He is set upon by wolves who scare off his horse and chase him all the way to a mysterious castle. He ducks inside the dark castle, where he is startled to find a bunch of household objects that talk, including Lumiere the candlestick, Cogsworth the clock, and Mrs. Potts the teapot (voiced by Angela Lansbury). Turns out, when the witch turned the prince into a beast, she turned his servants into things that sound like their names. Poor Mr. Crapper, the footman. The anthropomorphic servants welcome Belle’s father over Cogsworth’s objections, and take him to the study where he warms himself by the fire. There, he is attacked by a monster who emerges from the shadows and throws the poor man into the dungeon. Scary stuff. At this point, my daughter had buried herself in the sofa cushions. We told her everything was going to be okay, and begged her to stick with the movie. I’ll give my daughter credit. When she she was scared and didn’t like the movie anymore, I asked if she wanted me to turn it off. She said no.

Fortunately for the Beast (and the movie), Belle was as brave as my daughter, tracking her missing father to the castle, where she meets the Beast, Instead of running away, she steps up and offers to take her father’s place as his captive. Although the Beast upgrades her from dank cell to luxury suite, she resents him and he returns her hostility in kind. She tries to run away, only to be attacked by the same pesky wolves that went after her dad, and probably Liam Neeson. Before the wolves can get her, the Beast jumps in and rescues her. Belle takes him back to the castle and tends to his wounds. She softens, he softens, and they become friends. Although he falls in love with her, fulfilling half of the prophecy, when she learns that her father is sick, he sets her free, hoping that if she loves him she will return, thus inspiring a generation of dumb Senior quotes.

Belle does return, of course, but it’s with an angry mob in tow led by Gaston -- he’s the REAL beast, FYI -- who wants to kill the Beast. Gaston finds him sulking in his tower and they fight, kinda like Edward Scissorhands and Anthony Michael Hall. Man, the early ‘90s were a great time for man v. half-man tower showdowns. Unlike that fight, the Beast stops short of killing Gaston, choosing his humanity over his bestiality (is that the right word?). Turns out it was a bad decision, though, because as Beast reaches for Belle, Gaston stabs him, then loses his balance and kills his own damn self. Idiot. The attack leaves Beast on the verge of death, but just as the last rose petal falls to the ground Belle tells him she loves him. The spell is broken! He turns into Fabio, his flatware turn back into people, and they all live happily ever after.
When it was over, my daughter told me she liked the movie and wanted to watch it again. Guess who was she most excited about seeing: The Beast. The thing that scared her the most was the thing she liked best. I shouldn’t be surprised. This is a kid who likes to make ghost sounds and tell “spooky” stories in a “spooky” voice. Fact is, kids are fine with scary stuff in movies. Fear is a huge part of kids’ lives, and, like pooping, it’s something they feel way more comfortable talking about than adults do. Especially the adults who are in charge of making modern kids’ movies. For those movies to assume their target viewers are a bunch of wimps only proves that crusading do-gooders don’t remember at all what it was like to be young.

Those of us who grew up in the PG-rated Wild West of the ‘80s know all about scary kids movies. And while there’s a big difference between the Walt Disney/Roald Dahl Gremlins and the Joe Dante version, Disney understood the value in giving kids a villain to root against. It’s a lesson that seems to have been forgotten in the non-confrontational modern world of children’s entertainment. Even Disney characters have long been reformed by toy designers into harmless trinkets. Look at the Disney Princess blanket on my daughter’s bed (NOTE: THIS IS NOT A REAL INVITATION), and consider what happened to these characters in their respective films. Snow White: spared by an assassin only to be poisoned by an evil witch. Cinderella: child slave to a wicked stepmother. Belle: imprisoned in a castle by a cruel monster. Okay, so Beast wasn’t THAT cruel, and Belle’s plight wasn’t as bad as the Grimm-style nastiness underlying older Disney movies, but you try telling that to my frightened daughter (AGAIN, NOT AN INVITATION. SERIOUSLY, I AM CALLING THE COPS).

Belle isn’t the best known Disney princess. I’m not even sure she belongs in the same category as the others—and I mean that in the best way. As much as I enjoy Snow White and Cinderella, neither are particularly good role models. The stereotypical little girl might dream of marrying a handsome prince and living in a castle, but that’s a terrible dream. If my daughter needs a princess role model—and I’m not saying she does—let it be Belle, a woman whose beauty is secondary to her brains. Come to think of it, if she wants to dream about marrying a prince, let it be the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast is one of the few Disney Princess movies where the prince is something more than a hunky ideal. Aside from his final transformation into Beefy McBiceps, Beast is a complicated guy. He and Belle fall in love not because of a magic kiss or discarded footwear, but because they take the time to get to know each other. They are friends first. It might have been better for the movie’s central idea that “beauty is found within” if Belle wasn’t so dang beautiful, but the film at least suggests a more realistic version of romance than those other Disney flicks. Even The Little Mermaid, which came out just two years earlier, is about a “love” based solely on physical attraction. The worst Beauty and the Beast might have done is inadvertently start the “hot wife, dumpy dude” TV trend. I’m not sure I’m ready to claim Beast and Belle as my favorite Disney couple, but they’re definitely the ones I’d want to hang out with at the annual Disney Royals BBQ. I bet they’d be happy for some non-regal company, too. I can’t imagine Prince Charming is much of a conversationalist, and you just KNOW Cinderella’s husband caught Beast rummaging through his trash once.

I can't say that Beauty and the Beast is one of THE best movies of 1991. It’s clearly not, since it’s not one of the five we’ll be watching this weekend (it’s also not Terminator 2, by the way... more on that Saturday). Beauty and the Beast IS, however, the one I watched with my daughter this weekend, and it was great. Part of the fun was sharing something I saw when I was younger with my own kid. Part of it was recognizing in my daughter the same intelligence and love of reading as Belle—looking forward to the possibilities that life, and love, hold for her. And part of it was pondering the sexual logistics of a talking candlestick and a feather duster... See you all in a few days. Vive le 1991!

20 comments:

  1. I still remember seeing this opening weekend at one of the shoebox theatres upstairs at the Pickwick in Park Ridge (Chicago area folks will know what I'm talking about). The showing was full of parents and little monsters running up and down the aisles (and those little monsters are probably college graduates now and oh god I'm old), until about 2 minutes into the movie when I realized not a kid was moving or talking. I glance around and the the kids are just sitting rapt, absorbed in the story, and I thought to myself that this movie was going to make several mints worth of money. And deservedly for everyone involved, it did.

    Just want to note also that for me, this is one of the two pillars of the Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken collaboration (the other being Little Shop of Horrors). It's a freaking great collections that are not only enjoyable but also move the story very well (we all love a montage here at F This Movie, and though there is no kickboxing in it I'll maintain that "Something There" is a damn great montage song).

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  2. I believe it was Frank Rich who said that the best Broadway show of 1991 was actually at the multiplex. Beauty and the Beast has a wonderful score - and nobody sings that title song like Angela Landsbury.

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  3. Still my favorite Disney movie, I'm pretty sure.

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  4. It would take a smarter mind and a longer article to get into it, but this movie feels like a bridge between older and newer styles. In the way the characters and messages are treated, and the introduction of computer animation to the (gorgeous) 2D hand-drawn art. I haven't had time to dig into the 3-hour making-of doc that comes with the Blu-ray, but I think I need to. Time to return the library copy and pick up one for the home collection.

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  5. Great read, Erich. Revisiting childhood classics with your child/ren should be a regular feature from you and/or any of the F This Movie writers.

    Beauty and the Beast was one of the few movies we owned a VHS of and I watched it many times with my little sister - faux-begrudgingly as it was a GIRL movie but I secretly really liked it and it's definitely one of my favourite pre-Pixar Disney movies.

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    1. Thanks Sol. I'd like to write more about watching movies with my daughter. What name do you prefer: "15 Minutes At a Time" or "Skipping the Talking Parts"?

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  6. Currently, I own the French version of Beauty and the Beast as a result of Patrick's ringing endorsment of it from his favorite movies podcast. It's fantastic, and while this one is a bit different, it's no less enjoyable. Would I call it my personal favorite Disney movie? Probably not. I think Aladdin or Peter Pan might have that locked down, but it is highly enjoyable.

    Not to mention it includes one of the best messages in a Disney movie. I hope more people continue to see this movie and take that message to heart.

    I very much enjoyed your recounting of your daughter's viewing of it, Erich! Well done! I think I need to order this for my personal collection ASAP, as well!

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  7. I love "Beauty and the Beast" too! I have always considered Belle a great role model for girls, and by far the strongest. That why most of Disney's later films infuriate me. The biggest culprit is "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", a movie that completely undermines most of the positive messages that "Beauty and the Beast" contained.

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    1. What? Just because Esmerelda picked the hunky guy over Quasi? I'm quite sure that film established a deep and meaningful connection between Esmerelda and whats-his-name to justify their going off together...

      Oh right. I guess it was because of his abs.

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    2. Thinking about "Hunchback" - what a fascinating misfire that movie is. What other kids' movie has a scene where an old dude sings about his forbidden lust for a sexy gypsy woman? I can imagine the fun some parents had trying to explain that scene to their kids.

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  8. Thoroughly, THOROUGHLY enjoyed this, Erich. It's about as perfect as Disney movies get and I really enjoyed learning your thoughts about it through your interactions with your daughter. Very genuine without seeming like a stage dad. Good on you.

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    1. Thanks! So I probably shouldn't tell you that when I asked my daughter again last night whether she liked the movie, she said "no." So glad she doesn't comment on this site.

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  9. What you might be really teaching your daughter.

    http://www.cracked.com/video_18506_the-4-worst-lessons-disney-movies-taught-us-as-kids.html

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    1. Hilarious. And true. I am going home to burn all of our Disney movies.

      That's what I was supposed to get from that video, right?

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  10. Having just seen "Beauty and the Beast" on Blu-ray (on a new HDTV that has 120 Hz refresh rate, so the smoothness of the animation and movement fluidity was stunning) I can't share the universal love and enthusiasm for it. I mostly hated it but there were a handful of scenes (the animated objects defending the castle from the village mob) and songs ('Be Our Guest' and Angela Lansbury singing the title track) that saved it from being a total wreck. I'll fess up to a personal bias toward anime ("Sailor Moon" rulz!) and against musicals (which 1/3 of this movie is), but that didn't stop me from flipping over "Sleeping Beauty" as one of the best animated movies I've ever seen. I swear when I watched "Beauty and the Beast" last night the style and character design (particularly Lefou's but pretty much everyone besides Belle and Beast) looked as ugly to me as the Ralph Bakshi animated movies from the 70's and 80's looked when they were measured against Uncle Walt's animated masterpieces.

    I wasn't crazy about Cocteau's '46 version either but at least there the stuff that was given the Disney treatment here (the candlesticks, the relative wondering into the forest, Avenant being obsessed with Belle, etc.) made sense thematically and with the artistic sensibilities of its makers. To my surprise though both the animated version and the '46 version arrived at the same place for me (which Patrick talked about in his Favorite Movie's podcast): the moment that Beast is gone and he's human again I found myself immediately wishing for and missing the monster.

    I want to see "Beauty and the Beast" again but I can't tell you how disappointed I was it didn't live to anywhere the reputation it has. Should have seen it when I was a life-loving 18 year-old instead of cranky 40 year-old grouch. :-(

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    1. You don't like anything we like. I do not understand what keeps you coming back.

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    2. You sure you didn't watch the Ron Perlman TV show by mistake?

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  11. ^^^ Pretty sure it wasn't the TV show. I mean, Lumiere and Benjamin Bratt gun down Vincent (suicide-by-TV-cop) after he devours Belle right after she pulls a shotgun on the Gaston-1000 as he was morph-stabbing Vincent in the back. All that is in the cartoon, right? Right? :-P

    BTW, Erich, wasn't the amount of loading and previews before "Beauty and the Beast" starts on the Blu-ray kind-of ridiculous? I was pressing skip, skip, skip on the PS3 remote for what seemed like forever (OK, two minutes, but still!). If I had a three year-old yelling that he/she wants Belle and the singing teapots I don't know how I would explain Java incompatibility and studio greed to him/her.

    Patrick, oh, Patrick, what can I say to make you love me again (like when you read my genuine I-love-your-podcast-you-guys-rock-give-me-your-free-stuff e-mails in the podcasts a year ago)? Sorry about "Beauty and the Beast" (I didn't know I was going to hate it until I watched it, if anything I was pre-disposed to thinking I'd like it by blind-buying the Blu-ray), sorry about "Point Break" (you got 'spaghetti with marinara sauce' out of it and I got 'egg noodles and ketchup'), sorry that "Jurassic Park" is my Spielberg "Lost World"... that "Dances With Wolves" and "Titanic" move me... 3D movies enhance my movie experience... liking "Holy Motors" more than "Cloud Atlas" (me, you and Mike are terribly alone on our love of these)... thinking the world of "The Dark Knight Rises"... the opposite of "Cabin in the Woods," etc. I'm sorry to Mark Ahn and Adam that I think "Silver Linings Playbook" is a piece of shit (nobody was more suprised than me), to JB that "Moonrise Kingdom" didn't do much for me. And so on and so forth ad infinitum.

    If I were pulling an Armond White on you guys you'd have every right to tell me to go 'F' myself and lick a strawberry blindfolded in the middle of Michigan Avenue. But your genuine love and enthusiasm for movies motivates me to only seek them out but be truthful about them. As a now-serial podcast whore (hi, Mike) there isn't one podcast or article that I haven't listened to/read that I liked, some more than others (OK, lots more) except for that huge out-of-nowhere slam against Michael Cimino in the 'F Directors' series... the hell is that about? :-P

    And don't we agree on more movies than we disagree about? Isn't "Jack Reacher" awesome? Do you also want to watch "Looper" again right now? DIsn't "Django Unchained" a def deuce mother of a dope flick? Aren't "Last Boy Scout" and "T2" terrific choices for the 1991 Film Fest? Don't know about the other three but hey, there's a 1 out of 3 chances I'll like 1 of them. :-P I'm here because I like you guys, and because as individuals with strong opinions about a hobby we feel strongly-enough to argue about we can at least agree that James Cameron not marrying Zoe Saldana (come on, it had to cross your mind during the "Avatar" hype) is the best to happen to movies since the site came online.

    So, where do I set the kissing booth to start making ammends? I've stockpiled on blistex so I'm ready to kiss plenty of butt. Who's first?

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    1. ^^^ YIKES!!!, that came out wrong!
      ... there isn't one podcast or article that I haven't listened to/read that I liked...

      What I meant to say was: There isn't a podcast or article that I've listened to/read that I didn't like, i.e., I liked them all (some more than others). That's what I get for typing a reply at 4AM after working back-to-back shifts at work to get free time on Saturday to watch/comment on the 1991 Film Fest (committed enough for you?).

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    2. No one wants you to kiss butt, and no one questions your commitment. I wasn't even trying to be contentious. It was a sincere question. Of course you should be honest about your opinions, and we're all big enough boys and girls that we can appreciate different taste. But when someone writes 2,000 words about "here's why I think this is good or effective" and the response is "Nope, hated it," I do think it's a) dismissive and b) a conversation ender instead of a continuation. Not trying to chase you off or suggest that you only agree with us. It just seems like we want different things from movies, so I didn't know what you got from the site. You explained it in your response. On to the Fest.

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