Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Disney's proven time and again that a tale as old as time is most attractive to children when stuffed with with stock anthropomorphic characters. Sure, we may like Cinderella or The Little Mermaid as stories, but to whom would we have turned for laughs save for Gus the mouse or Sebastian the crab? It's just not the same without musical numbers featuring animals or ordinarily inanimate objects singing and dancing their little hearts out. We may never have considered that a teacup could be adorably naive or a feather duster sexy, but Disney is always there to show us the way.
In the 90s Disney Animation Studios was at the peak of its renaissance period, churning out hit after hand-drawn hit on an annual basis. The films were of consistently high quality and offered much in the way of catchy music, stunning visuals, and much-needed kid-friendly comic relief. Kids and adults alike enjoyed these movies; adults for the quality and kids for the cuddly, easily merchandisable characters. It was an especially easy sell for young girls, banking on two magic words: Disney princesses. Put those girls in skimpy enough outfits (Jasmine, anyone?) and you'll have adolescent boys on board, too.
Compared to many other Disney animated features, Beauty and the Beast played it pretty safe in sticking with the original story. Beauty and the Beast is based on the French fairy tale La Belle et la Bete and follows the 18th century version fairly closely. Disney, though, has a charming way of Disney-fying everything in its path, meaning inserting the aforementioned anthropomorphic characters whenever deemed necessary. In the case of Beauty and the Beast, Disney dreams up a full menagerie of living decorative homegoods to entertain us, giving us a world filled with French-accented candelabras and wise, matronly teapots. They might not advance the plot any, but they are pretty damn cute.
Disney worked and reworked their version of the story many times, with the studio considering a Beauty and the Beast movie since its early days. Most critics agreed that it was indeed worth the wait; Beauty and the Beast remains one of the best-reviewed animated films of all time, not to mention the only one to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Their final product was a cinematic bouillabaisse of their various attempts at telling the story.
The movie opens on the Beast's backstory, depicting him as a cruel and selfish prince who is unkind to others. After he gives the boot to a sorceress in disguise as a beggar, she turns it back on him and turns him into some unholy cross between Chewbacca and a Minotaur. As a consolation, he gets a handy magic mirror (that serves little purpose other than to move the plot forward later in the movie) and a magic rose. The rose will die on his 21st birthday, leaving him a beast forever unless he can learn to love. That's kind of a downer, huh? Not exactly how I'd like to have spent my 21st birthday, if I remembered it. I'm pretty positive it didn't involve an eternal fate as a hideous monster, though.
We jump to Belle and her nutty inventor father, Maurice, an oddball family living in the French countryside. Belle is extraordinarily beautiful, loves to read, and has a sophisticated vocabulary that includes words like "provincial". The town's resident beefcake Gaston seeks her affection based on her looks, overlooking what the rest of the town perceives to be her strangeness. Belle, though, just isn't having it. As romantic as it sounds to have your home decorated in early big game hunting, I think I'd pass too.
Belle's father, Maurice, is on his way to some wacky inventors' fair when he takes a wrong turn and ends up at the Beast's secluded castle. I'm not sure if any of you ever saw the Disney on Ice version, but those bats he encounters in the woods were downright scarring. Clearly, I'm still not over it. Anyway, Maurice is pretty taken by the talking household objects, who are really the prince's faithful servants under the same curse. The Beast isn't going for the whole generous hospitality thing and locks Maurice in a cell. He agrees to trade his new prisoner for his daughter when the ever-goodly Belle offers to take his place.
The Beast tries to be hospitable, but it's obviously not really his thing. Belle denies his dinner invitation, so he tells his decorative servants not to feed her. In what may be the greatest act of defiance ever performed by a candelabra, smooth-talking Lumiere pulls out all the stops for her. He even throws in this incredibly entertaining song-and-dance routine:
Fast forward a little and we're at Belle's near-escape. She and her horse encounter some vicious wolves, the Beast steps in, Belle nurses him back to health. One thing leads to another and the two are friends. He gives her a library, you know, like you do to express your friendship. I suppose we should give him a break, he's a furry horn-sporting shut-in, it was a kind gesture. They have a little on-site date where she wears an enviable gold gown, the Beast tries his best to be gentlemanly, and Mrs. Potts provides the song:
Remember that magic mirror that served to set up a later plot point? Well here it is. Belle looks in the magic mirror and sees her father dying and insists she must rush to his side. The beast lets her go, despite the fact that his rose is nearly withered. Needless to say, his servants are pretty pissed. Sure, it was nice to let her go, but would you want to be an armoire forever?
No one back in town is buying Maurice's seemingly tall tale about a mysterious beast, so Belle proves it with the mirror. Gaston rounds up an angry, torch-wielding mob and goes after our now-gentle giant. Gaston calls for the townspeople to hunt and kill the beast, and they all seem to be pretty on board with it:
The Beast has no will to fight back, but he spots Belle and finds it within himself to shove Gaston off a cliff. Unfortunately, Gaston managed to stab the Beast before his demise. Beast is fading fast, till Belle utters, "I love you". Presto-Change-o, the Beast is a handsome prince, and we get to see all of our servant friends back in human form. Remarkably, they all look pretty much exactly the same. Who would've thought?
In true Disney fashion, it's a happy ending for all, at least until they can milk the franchise for more profits on a direct-to-video sequel. Lucky for all of you, I never saw those sequels (actually, midquels) and thus will not be subjecting you to a lengthy and snarky synopsis.. Instead, we can just let the story ends where it ends here: happily. The good guys prevail, the bad guy dies a retributive death, and the other sort-of-bad-guy with a secret heart of gold is reformed. The only question left to ponder is why Lumiere is the only guy with a French accent if this whole thing is taking place in France. Any takers on that one?