So I Just (Re)Watched: Beauty and the Beast

Seventh in a series of disorganized thoughts I am left with immediately after watching something.

I don’t know what it is about the letter “B”, but if you ask me “what are some good ______?”, my mind gravitates towards it.  I certainly like things that start with other letters, but I kind of jump to “B” at a moment’s notice.  It’s a fun, round, plump letter that’s produces a warm, soft, and cozy phoneme.  You might say it’s my favorite letter of the balphabet.  No, that’s stupid.  “Alphabet” derives from the common sequence of Greek letters (alpha, beta, gamma, delta, etc.)  So it would be more appropriate to say it’s my favorite letter of the betagam.

Anyway!  Examples.  “What are some good musicians?”  Beck, Bowie, Byrne, Badly Drawn Boy, Basement Jaxx, Björk.  “Esoteric or idiosyncratic games?”  Bayonetta, Bastion, Braid, Borderlands, Bushido Blade, Breath of Fire.  “Movies you can watch over and over?”  Big Lebowski, Brazil, Barton Fink, Beetlejuice, Back to the Future, Being John Malkovich, Beauty and the Beast.

And so I watched Beauty and the Beast again!  The Disney one with the singing and the animations.

So many other more qualified people than myself have spoken and written at length about this, one of the bona fide best productions of Disney’s 90’s golden age, and my favorite over even Aladdin (too schticky), The Lion King (too compressed), or Mulan (too Eddie Murph-y).  It strikes as near a perfect balance of whimsy, drama, plotting, character development, technique, music and action as anything Disney has done.  Plus, it has a sense of humor that lives in the movie’s own world, with perhaps only one sly pop cultural reference to be seen (and one that, frankly, I only just noticed on this, my several-dozenth viewing of the film).

It is not without some faults, though, which I also really drilled into recently, partly because I was watching it with a friend whom it is fun to bother.  But, my playful jabbing uncovered something I can’t really square, and it’s a matter of timeline regarding the Beast’s curse.

During the intro, we learn that the Beast was once a regular ol’ prince, who was visited by a powerful sorceress in the guise of a ragged crone.  When the prince refuses her proposed payment of a single rose in exchange for a night of shelter, she curses him and his palace (kingdom? province?) until he turns 21 (woo!), if by such time he has not found true love, he will remain a beast forever.  And everyone in the castle remains anthropomorphic household objects.

In the time since, the castle falls into disarray, and I guess everybody in the nearby village just straight up forgets there was this big ol’ castle with royalty and stuff.  How long has it been?  Well, if a singing candlestick man can be considered an authority on the passage of time (I would defer to the clock man, myself), “for ten years [they’ve] been rusting, needing so much more than dusting” (if you know what he means, and I presume you do, as he spends most of the film engaged in flirtatious escapades with a feather duster, and ‘dusting’ just isn’t enough to satisfy ol’ Lennie Briscoe).

So.  21st birthday.  10 years.  Princey was ELEVEN YEARS OLD when the sorceress cursed him.  I don’t know what the household dynamic was like pre-curse, but was this really his decision to be making, to welcome or turn away an enigmatic wanderer?  Assuming his parents were both dead (which is all I can do–assume–since nobody ever mentions the king or queen), and he’s a child-king, even at that age he should know enough to defer to Cogsworth, his majordomo, in such matters.  Why’s he even answering the door?

That’s a pretty crappy age to get hit with a love-based curse, too.  At eleven, I was still of the opinion that girls were mostly icky, and even up til 21 I wasn’t in a sound frame of mind to be making “true love” decisions.  Puberty must have been especially ugly.

Plus, there’s a painting in the Beast’s forbidden west wing of the castle, tattered to shreds, of a decidedly non-eleven-looking human Prince, so I think the chronology was not a detail we were meant to scrutinize too closely, as there wasn’t much attention paid to it by the creative staff in the first place.

As to the nature of the curse, holy crud were there a lot of people in that castle to get turned into things.  I mean, every plate, every goblet, every damn fork is alive and (in some cases literally) kicking.  That’s hundreds of people in the cupboards alone.  Then there’s Mrs. Potts and her “son” Chip, the only animated teacup we see.  At the end of the film, when everyone returns to human form, Mrs. Potts actually looks way too old to be Chip’s mother, looking more like a nanny or even grandparent.  My assumption thus is that Chip is an orphan.  But Chip’s the only teacup with a screen presence.

At one point Mrs. Potts is putting Chip to “bed” with his “brothers and sisters” (probably more orphans), a cupboard full of dozens of other cups, all with closed eyes and mouths.  They’re a background painting, too, so there’s no indication of if they’re even alive.  Can a teacup child starve to death?  Presumably they’d remain a teacup even afterwards.  Might as well leave ’em in the cupboard.

But, let’s leave all that for now and venture out to that village where nobody seems to remember there used to be kings and queens and stuff not but a decade ago.  Belle is the bookish beauty that Gaston, the town’s alpha male, wants but cannot have.  In the opening number, she is off to town to trade in one book for another at the local BOOKSELLER (it says right on the sign!), not LIBRARY, even though she treats it as such.  What does Belle know about the bookseller which leaves him stuck in this profitless agreement with the town’s most voracious reader?  He even gives her a book, free of charge, just cuz she likes it so much.  Good thing, too, cuz that book gets wrecked not but moments later.

All the songs are great, doing the things songs in musicals are supposed to do: either paint a broad picture, or expand upon some key insight or moment, in a compact bit of song and lyric.  Belle does both, fleshing out the life of the village as well as focusing on Belle’s outcast status, her passions, and Gaston’s designs.

Aside!  There’s one moment about two thirds of the way through, where the chorus goes through a series of lines meant to signify busy overlapping conversations in the marketplace, but I could never separate the lines “I need six eggs / it’s too expensive” from each other.  Younger me was confused by the notion that a merchant would refuse a customer’s demands for a lot of their product.

In 2001, for the anniversary re-release and subsequent home media releases, they reincorporated a song that was cut from the original release, called Human Again.  It’s a soaring, boisterous waltz from the point of view of the castle residents, so excited that Beast’s curse will soon be broken and they will be… well, human again!  Being so used to seeing the movie without it, I was pleased at its inclusion, and while it is not essential to the plot, it is a fine, fun expansion on the supporting cast’s feelings.  It cements the stakes for them and has some really fun animation set pieces and visual gags.  It also fills in the gap in the original release of the castle (and particularly the grand ballroom) transitioning to run-down to… run-up?  Bonus cameos from the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” mops!

I particularly noticed Ashman and Menken’s propensity to use kind of unusual lyrical tricks, like internal rhyme and rhyming triples.  The song Gaston does both as its main motif.  For example: “No one’s slick as Gaston / No one’s quick as Gaston / No one’s neck’s as incredibly thick as Gaston’s”, and so forth.

I only noticed the prevalence of the triple-rhyming thing on this most recent viewing, but I was always aware of it in The Mob Song (which I also mistakenly thought was called Kill the Beast, hampering my efforts to find correct lyrics).  It happens twice.  The first time, and the one I always remembered, the one I think of if I’m thinking of rhyming three consecutive lines: “Bring your guns, bring your knives / Save your children and your wives / We’ll save our village and our lives / We’ll kill the Beast!”

The other, soon after, is that aforementioned one pop cultural joke I can think of in this whole movie: “Raise the flag, sing the song / Here we come, we’re fifty strong / And fifty Frenchmen can’t be wrong / Let’s kill the Beast!”  Tee-hee!  A joke that really only works if one has external knowledge of something else, particularly a 1927 American pop standard by Willie Raskin, Billy Rose, and Fred Fisher.  It’s an ironic twist on the song’s libertine spirit to turn it into a refrain of fear and violence.

The Mob Song also presents a great transition for Gaston from just a full-of-himself meathead into a genuinely menacing figure, and this personality shift comes very organically.  While it is clear throughout the film that he’s the antagonist, there’s an uneasy tension about just how far he’s willing to go to get what he wants, and here he blossoms into a true villain (who, in true Disney fashion dies a Disney villain death, whereupon he falls into a bottomless chasm of some sort.  It happens all the time!  Disney villains should probably invest in parachutes.)

That fight with the Beast is pretty exciting and dynamic, too.  In a movie full of excellent character animation, the Beast’s stands out due to his weird chimeric anatomy.  His movements are a sleek amalgam of wolf, bear, gorilla, human, lion, etc.  He’s one of my most favorite characters just to watch move around, it’s all so dynamic.  Speaking of animation, and of technical excellence I mentioned earlier, this is the first time Disney really cut loose with computer animation to great effect.  Though the Big Ben finale in “The Great Mouse Detective” was plotted with computers, all the animation was done by hand on top of it, and ultimately it just makes for a fairly abstract backdrop.  In “Beauty and the Beast”, though, the sweeping, lavish ballroom sequence is well-integrated, still looking pretty seamless all these years later, and highlights the emotional peak of the film in an iconic, memorable scene.  Plus, the pop version of the Beauty and the Beast theme gave Céline Dion her first international hit, after her first sixteen(!) albums went mostly unnoticed outside of Canada.

And then, at the end of it all, true love wins, and Beast reverts to the form of the Prince, a moment which I never particularly liked, if only because we’ve spent the whole movie coming to know the Beast in his monstrous form, seeing humanity develop within that fierce exterior.  Though he may have attained inner perfection, he is still externally flawed, and from a storytelling perspective I like that.  Seeing him turn into a fancy-pants handsome guy, well, now he’s a little too perfect, plus we’re not used to seeing him that way!  It’s like we’re starting from scratch in connecting with this character.  I don’t trust the Prince as much as I do the Beast, if that makes sense.  Plus, I want Belle to ask, like, “can you change back? You look weird this way.”

It’s “Beauty and the Beast”, not “Beauty and the Handsome Guy”, dammit!

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5 responses to “So I Just (Re)Watched: Beauty and the Beast

  1. Another excellent review of a Disney movie I wasn’t as keen on, but is actually much better than most that followed. It’s aggravating when an issue like the chronology can gum up the works. For all of its visual splendor, I’ve never cared for Blade Runner because it takes place way too soon—just add a hundred years and I’ll be fine!
    You’re right about Disney villains falling . . . let’s see, the Witch in Snow White, Lucifer the cat in Cinderella, Mustafa in “Lion King” (oh, wait, he’s not a villain), the guy in Hunchback, Ratigan. The pointy lady in The Emperor’s New Groove?Our favorite Disney trope is the fact that it always rains during dramatic scenes.
    Also, in regards to the letter B, I seem to recall a similar sentiment expressed near the beginning of the Science Fiction classic “The Space Merchants”, where it’s described as being a sexy letter (it’s been a few years since I read it . . . I was in college.) But it’s nice to know you have good associations with the letter B.

    Dad

  2. Entertaining as usual! Just visualizing some of the things you describe makes me smile… And you didn’t even touch on Belle’s wacko father! 🙂

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