Perfect, A Pure Paragon

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If you are as much of a Disney fan as I (few are), then the thought of a live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast gave you cause to salivate — one that kept the songs and its composer, eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken! I was sold, but as the days to release got closer, I found myself getting more and more cautious — suppose the end result sucked, a la Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables? I am proud and thankful to say that this adaptation, directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), is nothing short of brilliant. I write this review assuming that you are familiar with the base of the story (and you had better be!), and as such, spoilers follow.

One thing viewers of the 1993 Broadway show may not be aware of is that none of the songs written for said show carry over into this film, but fear not, as Menken and lyricist Sir Tim Rice write new songs that both make up for the missing ones and craft a new experience for the viewers of the show. Speaking of the songs, the movie is filled with brilliant performances, beginning with the Harry Potter franchise’s Emma Watson, who can sing, rest assured, and in spite of her promoted desire to modernize Belle, I was, as a feminist, glad to have seen her more resolute than openly militant — we’re bordering on the political, but I’m super happy this wasn’t rewritten as “Steinem and the Beast.” Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) makes a brilliant Beast, with one hell of a set of pipes — his signature number, “Evermore,” brought tears to my eyes, but it’s Luke Evans (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) who brings his latent background in musical theatre to the forefront and aces the role of Gaston with a great voice and the right levels of smarm, condescension and cruelty — just the right type of villain! Acting as his toady is Josh Gad (Back To You) as LeFou, who gets a larger story arc in this version, which fleshes him out without totally changing him. Kevin Kline (Silverado), as Belle’s father Maurice, brings a befuddled persona to the character, reminiscent of Buster Keaton in Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with an equally kind nature requisite of the character. He doesn’t get much of a song — less than two minutes — but his necessity isn’t in his singing, and you’ll find out when you see this.

The servile characters of the castle just about steal the show, with Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!) and Ian McKellen (Cold Comfort Farm) leading the pack as Lumiere and Cogsworth, respectively. With great singing voices (although Sir Ian doesn’t get to show his much), they make “Be Our Guest” a showstopper even better than the original (there’s even a visual nod to Esther Williams’ swim ballet pictures!)! Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) is adorable and kindly as Mrs. Potts, with a more knowledgeable nature than in the animated film, and alongside her is relative newcomer Nathan Mack as Chip, who is freakin’ adorkable. Here’s to your long career, boy!

Underplayed, but still appreciated, are Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Concussion) as Plumette, the featherduster and Lumiere’s flame (…groan…), Audra MacDonald (A Raisin in the Sun) as Madame de Garderobe, a soprano-cum-wardrobe, and Stanley Tucci (The Whole Shebang) as new character Maestro Cadenza, a court composer turned harpsichord. They each get their moment to shine, to be sure, but a little more couldn’t hurt. Still, not a big enough gripe to warrant a lesser grade.

Again, those fearing too much modernization in this edition need not worry — what wasn’t broke (or baroque) in the 1991 classic mercifully remains unfixed in this version. Sure, there’s the much-publicized “gay-making” of LeFou, but if it wasn’t publicized, I guarantee nobody would have even suspected it. It’s mercurial, and those of a discriminatory position needn’t fear their children’s safety — you never needed to anyway. Other plot points that warranted expansion are done brilliantly so, from the whereabouts of Belle’s mother and what happened to the Enchantress, and that speaks volumes of the talents of writers Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being A Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War), both writers I didn’t care much for prior to this, and director Bill Condon, who may have directed both parts of the Twilight saga closer, Breaking Dawn, but aside from giving him experience in visual effects work, there’s nothing resembling those two duds in this film.

Bravo to all involved in this adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, who have created something as memorable as the musical and film that preceded it. It’s a pity it wasn’t released in time for last Oscar season, but it was better they take care of the film and not rush a single thread. I will happily see it again in IMAX 3D, and I urge all readers of this to see it too!

Rating: 5/5(?!)

No Skies of Gray on that Great White Way

SIDENOTE: This is (hopefully) to be the first in a weekly series through July, reviewing classic films that often get brushed under the rug. Enjoy and encourage!

A cinematic breakfast snack of some kind!

A triumph! A cinematic breakfast snack of some kind!

As renowned actor Ciarán Hinds said in a January 2011 interview with The Wall Street Journal, movie heaven is “anything with James Stewart or Cary Grant, plus regular doses of Singin’ in the Rain.” What that wonderful man seemed to forget was most of the MGM musicals, even before Arthur Freed’s arrival at the studio, are enjoyable romps that, at the very least, come close to the glory that is Singin’. The film in question for this week’s lesson is one that, in this reviewer’s eyes, equals it — Broadway Melody of 1940. The final completed film in MGM’s Broadway Melody series, 1940 strikes a tone that seamlessly blends Leopold Stokowski, Glenn Miller and Spike Jones in a bright and joyous trip down Melody Lane.

Two down-on-their-luck dancers, Johnny Brett (Fred Astaire, Holiday Inn) and King Shaw (George Murphy, later a California Senator) are both dancing for peanuts and actively avoiding the long arm of the IRS when talent agent Bob Casey (Frank Morgan, The Wizard of Oz) asks to meet with Brett, the better of the two dancers. However, Casey doesn’t know Brett from another, and when the latter mistakes the former for a tax collector, Brett introduces himself as King Shaw. In the days to follow, the actual Shaw accelerates to the top of the dancing world, gaining ground with Clare Bennett (Eleanor Powell, TV’s The Faith of Our Children), a rising dancer whom Brett is quite sweet on, causing a rivalry that builds as many bridges as it burns.

Truly, 1940 is the first of my viewing any of the Broadway Melody series, but unlike The Big Broadcast, Paramount’s competing series of yearly musical revues, MGM’s is focused on telling a story first, whereas Paramount seemed to build up the ensemble and songs first, then tack on a story to link them all together. The difference between them is akin to Yeston & Kopit’s Phantom and Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera — one expounds, the other extends. That being said, 1940 is cute, fluffy stuff that makes one laugh and cheer at all the right moments.

Astaire is in fine form, as usual, in dancing up a storm and, on occasion, singing sweet tra-la-las between taps. He also brings a fair amount of pathos in playing Johnny Brett, clearly jealous of his partner’s rise to fame and quite angry at himself for giving Shaw’s name to Casey. Powell, purportedly one of the few dancers who could out-dance Astaire (causing him to fear her), performs on equal footing with her leading man, and they share some impressive routines together, from a tap number in a café to a luscious Harlequin masquerade waltz toward the end of the second act. As for Murphy, the only thing I had seen or heard of his work was a bitingly funny song named after him, composed and sung by Tom Lehrer, so while it feels wrong to criticize him, I will say this: he is no Astaire or Powell, but anyone who can keep up with either of them in a number is respectable in that regard. Morgan gets some of the best gags I have seen in a musical revue, usually having to do with the absurd talent he attempts to bring in for his shows, the best of which is a thoroughly mutilated take on Il Bacio akin to a performance by Spike Jones and his City Slickers — I want more.

After Broadway Melody of 1940, a planned Technicolor installment was planned for 1943 (bizarrely enough, 1940 was designed to shoot in color, but was filmed in black and white). One tap number was filmed with Powell, but the film was cancelled not long after, and the footage was reworked into another ensemble picture, Thousands Cheer. A shame it never came to fruition, and an even bigger shame that musical revues are shunned from Hollywood today, barring jukebox musicals filled exclusively with creations of the last fifty years (i.e.: Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia!, Across the Universe), because if they would only go back a few decades further, they would find a myriad of brilliant compositions in film and music that could only help the film and music industries as a whole. Why settle for “Wrecking Ball” when you could “Begin the Beguine?”

Rating: 4.5/5

Buy the DVD from Warner Archive