Thursday, March 23, 2017

Reserved Seating: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
This one has nothing there that wasn’t there before!

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino. And we invite you to be ou….

Adam: The beloved animated classic Beauty and the Beast (1991) gets a live-action facelift re-telling the tale as old as time of a young bookworm named Belle (Emma Watson) who falls in love with a monstrous-looking prince (Dan Stevens). In this clip, the two fall in love gradually by doing couples shit like laying one another out with snowballs and consuming soup.

The movie comes to life a little bit in these sequences, which are somewhat tonally abrupt as the filmmakers (the film is directed by Bill Condon, best known for Dreamgirls and a pair of Twilight chapters) speed past a natural flow of events because they realize they have to check certain boxes or the most devoted fans will get upset.

Rob: And boy, does this movie check those boxes. Have you seen Disney’s animated classic Beauty and the Beast, Adam? Cause I have and I just did again. This movie is totally fine, but -- as with all the live-action Disney remakes -- I’m scratching my head over their goal here. Aside from a shitload of money, that is.

Adam: Yeah, Disney’s interesting. They engender a lot of goodwill from me and I like the majority of their output, but the live-action remake of their animated classics trend has yet to yield anything more than a double. I purposely avoided watching the 1991 film before seeing the latest because I didn’t want the shadow of the old to hang over the new. So judging it just on its own terms, I’ll say this: Beauty and the Beast (2017) is possibly the family movie equivalent to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a film that succeeds almost entirely on the incredible craft on display, from set design to wardrobe to score to cinematography, but at its center it’s a hollow take on the story itself. I wanted to feel more passion or even romance from the movie, but it feels too much in a hurry to settle into anything more than just souped-up versions of moments. I didn’t dislike the movie but I wanted to enjoy it more than I did.
Rob: I like what you said about craft, and I totally agree that the limitless moving parts get in the way of the storytelling. Everyone spends so much time reacting to the CGI elements around them that they’re barely given time to act. I like what Luke Evans did as Gaston, but I think that was mostly due to the fact that he was the only one given the space to stretch his legs. But like you said, this is a quality movie. One thing did bother me, though, and I’ll need to see if I’m wrong here: In the original film, did Belle know there was a curse and that the beast was once a prince? That really cheapened the narrative for me. I don’t remember that being a thing last time.

Adam: I haven’t seen the older version in many years so I can’t say for sure. I don’t think they changed that plot element, though. Maybe one of our viewers can chime in and confirm for us. Speaking on that topic, I thought the additions were ineffectual to bad. The worst offender was the subplot about Belle’s mother. If I were a young kid watching this movie that would have freaked me out!

Rob: Yeah, I definitely noted an effort to adultify things a bit, but tonal adjustments like that are so hard with that much digital noise hogging up the frame. I appreciate the effort, though. What did you think of Emma Watson?

Adam: She definitely looks the part and she seems to be a natural fit for the female empowerment aspects of the character (which I’m happy about). Her voice is thin in the songs but pleasant enough to listen to. My main criticism is not even really that fair, and it’s her face. She has two expressions, basically, which are to be concerned or mildly amused and in scenes like the “Be Our Guest” sequence her lack of reaction makes it feel like the digital effects people are coughing up a lung trying to convince her this is all amazing instead of some of the work being done by her non-verbal performance. Overall she’s fine, but it’s a case where you can easily think of twenty other actresses who would have sold the role a bit more.
Rob: I hate doing this because I feel like stiffness and lack of range are things female actors get pegged with more than male, so I’ll just say that while she wasn’t given the kind of latitude to really act her heart out, she certainly didn’t drag the material down. Again, it’s that problem of “reacting to CGI elements that aren’t there.” These poor people are asked to emote at ping pong balls and be believable. It’s so much stress. I’m sure she’ll buy a beautiful house with her cut of the box office, though, so there’s some solace in that. Was there a particular performance you really liked?

Adam: Ok, we’re going to have a Reserved Seating brawl here. I kind of don’t like the insinuation that I’m being harder on Emma Watson because she’s a female actor than a male one. She was in eight Harry Potter films and was a total spark plug, charming and really selling the material. Here she looks weary of the blockbuster machine, like “Fuck, I gotta do all this ping pong ball acting again!” I’ll let you respond and then I’ll go into the rest of the performances.

Rob: I think what we have here is a Reserved Seating misunderstanding. I totally agree with your assessment of her performance, and I think what I meant was that I didn’t want our criticisms to be characterized in that reductive way. Did that come across, Sally?

Sally: No. You totally sounded like you were throwing shade on Adam.

Rob: Shit. I didn’t mean that.

Adam: No, I get it. But now that it’s just a misunderstanding it looks like I flew off the handle. So now I’m an even bigger dick and you pull poor Sally into this. Shame on you, Rob. Shame. Shame. Double shame. Just because you say so doesn’t make you more for the cause than I am! As for the rest of the performances…

Rob: Josh Gad! Let’s talk about him. Annoying? Charming? Plucky comic relief?
Adam: I follow him on Twitter. He seems like a very nice man. I think he’s solid comic relief. I am also flummoxed by his newly anointed national treasure status. Just five or so years ago, he was in the Dan Fogler camp (I like Dan Fogler, btw) where all he was cast as was the slovenly perv and then Disney completely revamps his image and he’s a big deal. Good for him. I was fine with his performance. As you mentioned earlier, Luke Evans is a fun Gaston and I think his interplay with Gad helps make their scenes come more alive than a lot of the CGI activity. I appreciate that Gad is giving 110 percent all the time. He’s very much a theater actor.

Rob: He seemed to like the work he was given to do, and I found myself liking a lot of what he did. How did you feel about the film’s diversity? It felt like Disney went out of their way to showcase a lot of ethnic and racial diversity in group shots and then paid off the sexual diversity big time with that third musketeer in drag at the end. Conscientious social statement or cynical pandering?

Adam: I loved it. I thought a lot of the casting (from the diversity perspective) was just how it should be: invisible. They hired actors to play the parts regardless of their ethnicity, because in many cases they were playing inanimate objects so you just hire the best people for the roles. I was indifferent to the LGBT take on LeFou and the character from later in the third act, but then a funny thing happened. In the last few minutes, there’s a big dance and the two men dance with each other and it is not called attention to. It just happens matter-of-fact. I got choked up. The reason being is because it’s a large conglomerate called Disney, a flagship of family entertainment around the world, specifically endorsing that they are pro-gay and that they appeal to diversity and more modern values. As a Jew, Disney has been uncomfortable at times to embrace because Walt Disney was allegedly not a supporter of my minority group, so to see Disney in 2017 embrace a different group like this is really quite lovely. I’ll let you comment on that, but also what was your take on the Beast? I think they would have been better served having Dan Stevens in makeup as opposed to being digitally rendered. You don’t hire a charismatic guy like that and then takeaway part of his screen presence.

Rob: Well first, very well said on the diversity thing. I’m in total agreement. On the next point, I really...really wish Dan Stevens had been in makeup. I know it’s a logistical nightmare these days, especially with so much of the other effects done CGI, but it seriously cut into my appreciation of his performance and (I imagine) limited what Emma Watson could do in their scenes together. I really liked his vocal performance (and what I assume was his emoting through a mo-cap suit), but I think Disney made a choice to get it done fast and they had to stand by it. It makes me sad.

Adam: I agree. There are a couple more things I want to make sure we get to before we have to wrap up. The musical numbers. I thought they were weird. The two most well-known, “Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast,” didn’t land at all for me. In fact, I thought “Be Our Guest” could really only be enjoyed if you were in the throes of an edible. I did think, though, that “Something There” was good and probably from the best stretch of the movie, and that the “Belle” song near the beginning (which ends with a hilltop solo that I’m sure is supposed to recall The Sound of Music) was really terrific. “Gaston” is also good, since Evans and Gad put so much stock into it.

The other thing I wanted to cover was how, in retrospect, I’m not surprised the movie is a mixed bag. Bill Condon, as a director, makes cold movies - Dreamgirls is lifeless, Kinsey is abstract, etc. I sort of wish Disney thought outside the box a little more choosing a filmmaker for this adaptation. With Condon, you’re gonna get safe, whereas can you imagine if you hired someone from maybe animation to direct this (like from the Laika team perhaps)? I think that might be the key to these live-action remakes: get someone used to relying on visual storytelling as the primary driver since so much of this new crop of Disney movies are a visual effects composites with some human moving parts.
Rob: On the first point, I had a hard time getting invested in the musical numbers because each one was telegraphed a few minutes ahead of time (which is fine) and I ended up getting a pang of nostalgic recognition from the animated version that took me out of the film. That’s not the movie’s fault at all -- it’s mine. That said, the musical numbers were part and parcel of the inherent problems of this whole production: forced, arranged, maybe a bit rushed. It’s one of those movies that involves so many moving parts that there’s no room for human beings. It’s hard to get emotional about a song like “Be Our Guest” when there’s so much CGI noise in the frame that the camera is rushing around just to capture it all. As for Condon, we need only look at Disney’s approach with Marvel: You want someone who will play by the rules and not rock the boat. A journeyman director like Bill Condon fits the bill. This is a producer’s movie, not a director’s. I guess it’s a big jaded of me to say like that, but I didn’t expect this film to have an authorial voice, so I wasn’t all that disappointed.

Adam: Fair enough. How bad did Belle want those books, huh?

Rob: So, so much. It made me happy that Watson’s most convincing emotional reaction was to a library. Fuck you, patriarchy!

Adam: She’d be good in a reboot of The Pagemaster. She’d be all “There might be something there but I’d rather read a booooooooook!”

Rob: Shit, I forgot The Pagemaster existed, but now I want to rewatch it. I loved that movie. So are we Mark Ahn or Off on this one?

Adam: If you would have asked me after the screening, I would say Mark Off, but time has been kind to it for me so I’ll go the most marginal Mark Ahn. Plus, I haven’t given a good review to anything in a long time on this show. So Mark Ahn for Beauty and the Beast (2017). How about you?

Rob: Mark Ahn, for me. It was exactly what it wanted to be, and the crowd I saw it with ate it up. Moving onto Mulan, I guess.

Adam: I read today that the director of Mulan said it won’t have songs. Are they out of their fucking minds?

Rob: Turns out Disney CAN screw the pooch on this whole live-action thing. I guess we’ll wait and see. Until next time…

Adam: ...these seats are reserved and we’ll review T2: Trainspotting. Join us then!


  1. I feel like the only person in the world right now who thought Beauty and the Beast was wonderful in many ways in really enjoyed it. For me, it was aesthetically gorgeous, the music was not as memorable as the original, but still strong, and the live-action portrayals of the characters were all well done. *shrug*

    1. You should like what you like! I think that's great.

  2. I really wasn't a fan of the extra backstory stuff they added in. It's like when you watch an unnecessary Director's Cut of a movie and realize why all those extra scenes were cut in the first place.

  3. Er... "The live-action remake of their animated classics trend has yet to yield anything more than a double." As I understand it, last year's Pete's Dragon movie had very little to do with the original. But maybe you're not counting that because the original was neither entirely animated nor a beloved classic?

    I also have no idea where Rob is coming from in saying female actors are called stiff more often than male ones. (The public - and especially Internet - reactions to Sam Worthington and Jai Courtney, anyone?) Hollywood has many very real gender problems, but I don't see this as being one of them.

    1. I agree that I'm not sure it female actors are disproportionately accused of having a lack of range but I also can't completely dismiss Rob's perception that it happens. Kristen Stewart is a particularly notable example of an actress whose performances have often been unfairly dismissed as one-note or who is said to only have a couple different facial expressions.

      I'm fairly indifferent towards Sam Worthington, but I thought Jai Courtney was great in Spartacus. They've both turned in some bad performances though in no small part due to the fact that they maybe haven't chosen the best projects. Sam Worthington usually isn't the worst thing in the movies he's in but he typically doesn't elevate the material either.

    2. @El Gaith - You're correct, I was not thinking of Pete's Dragon when I wrote that. I'm not a fan of that movie but I know many people love it.