BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) Still Has The Songs

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It’s all about the music.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), Disney’s live-action remake of their beloved animated classic from 1991, succeeds for the simple reason that it’s still got those songs by Alan Menken.  Everything else is gravy.

I enjoyed this new version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST so much I’m going to say something here that will be sacrilege for those who love the 1991 film version: I liked this new version better. 

Sure, I really liked the 1991 animated film and was glad it received a Best Picture nomination that year, but for me the best part of that film has always been Alan Menken’s songs.  In fact, his score was so good I’ve always thought it really deserved to be in a film with real actors as opposed to animated ones.

This 2017 version gives Menken’s music the platform it has always deserved.

The plot, of course, remains the same.  A handsome but selfish prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed for his meanness and turned into a hideous Beast.  His servants are cursed as well, as they are all transformed into household items.

Meanwhile, in a neighboring village, an “odd” farm girl Belle (Emma Watson) who would rather read books than marry the muscular village heart-throb Gaston (Luke Evans) lives with her equally eccentric inventor father Maurice (Kevin Kline).  When Maurice becomes lost in the woods and finds himself at the Beast’s castle, he is taken prisoner there.  Belle comes to his rescue and makes a deal with the Beast to take her father’s place.

We then learn that in order to break the curse, someone must fall in love with the Beast, and the former servants who are now household objects believe Belle is this women, and they go out of their way to arrange a romance between Belle and the Beast.

This 2017 version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is probably not going to receive the recognition which the 1991 animated hit received, which is too bad because it’s a very good movie.  It’s grand entertainment from beginning to end.  That being said, it’s not without flaws, but even these drawbacks don’t derail this two-hour and nine minute musical.

Many have lamented that Disney chose as its director for this film Bill Condon, the man who directed the awful THE TWILIGHT SAGA:  BREAKING DAWN – PART 1 (2011) and PART 2 (2012),  but Condon also directed MR. HOLMES (2015), an intriguing tale of an aged, dementia-suffering Sherlock Holmes, and GODS AND MONSTERS (1998), an equally engaging movie about the later days of FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale, both films starring Ian McKellen in the lead roles, who also appears here in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

Condon’s work here is closer in quality to MR. HOLMES and GODS AND MONSTERS than those horrible TWILIGHT movies.  The film is colorful and beautiful to look at, the pacing is upbeat, and for a two-hour plus film it doesn’t drag at all, and the musical numbers are lively and satisfying.

Emma Watson has also been receiving her fair share of criticism for a rather flat portrayal of Belle.  Sure, Watson doesn’t play Belle like a princess.  She plays her like a bookish farm girl who is more interested in imagination than romance, which is exactly how Belle should be portrayed.  So, while I agree that at times Belle isn’t the most exciting woman on the planet, she’s not supposed to be.  I thought Watson nailed Belle’s persona.

I did have a little bit of a problem with the CGI used on the Beast, and it’s not that the Beast looked fake— he looked fine— but that he looked a bit too handsome.  He’s not very beastlike in appearance.  He’s not hideous or revolting or frightening.  He’s pretty darn good-looking for a beast.  I kept thinking of that line from the song “Werewolves of London”:  And his hair was perfect.

As the Beast, Dan Stevens does a serviceable job providing the voice, and even displays some well-timed humor when he’s the prince at the end of the movie.

The rest of the CGI effects on the occupants of the castle are unusually understated and simple. Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and Chip all look rather plain. Some have interpreted this as inferior CGI, but I liked this effect.  It kept the film from going down the road of high silliness.

Kevin Kline turns in a nice performance as Belle’s father Maurice, and he enjoys some fine moments.

But hands down the two best performances in the movie belong to Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou.  Now, in the 1991 animated version, these two provided the comic relief and were over-the-top ridiculous.  As such, they were probably my least two favorite characters in the 1991 version.  It’s the exact opposite here.

While they remain over-the-top and again provide comic relief, both Evans and Gad add so much more to their performances, giving these characters nuances which simply weren’t there in the original.  Evans, as the handsome cad who every woman in the village other than Belle pines for, plays this aspect to the hilt, but he also grounds the character with a sense of military realism that makes Gaston more of a three-dimensional villain here.

As good as Evans is, Josh Gad is even better as LeFou.  He provides several laugh-out-loud moments in this movie, and he makes LeFou much more than just the mindless bumbling sidekick we saw in the animated version.  This LeFou is a real person.  Much has been made about the gay angle of the character, and all I can say is it works wonderfully and it’s a natural progression for the character.

Ewan McGregor is serviceable as Lumiere, but the rest of the cast is hardly noticeable, and this includes some big names.  Ian McKellen barely registers as Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson, while fine as Mts. Potts, doesn’t stand out either.  Even Stanley Tucci is restrained as Maestro Cadenza.  But somehow, none of this really gets in the way of the success of this movie.

And to come full circle, the reason again is the music by Alan Menken.  Somehow, those songs sound even better today.

Menken’s music score and songs have always cried out for a live action rendition.

The 2017 version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is that rendition.

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THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) Remake Is A Rousing Adventure

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Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife—.

Eh hem.  Excuse me.  I got carried away.

“The Bare Necesseties” is one of my favorite songs from the 1967 animated Disney THE JUNGLE BOOK— one of my favorite movies of all time— and I’m happy to say it makes it into the 2016 remake by director Jon Favreau.

Because I’m a huge fan of the 1967 film, I was certainly looking forward to this new version of THE JUNGLE BOOK.  At the same time, I was wary that it wouldn’t be able to live up to the classic animated film.  While I probably still prefer the 1967 movie— it’s been a favorite for so long— this new remake comes pretty darn close to satisfying on all levels. In short, it’s a pretty darn good movie.

Now, there’s also a 1994 live action version of THE JUNGLE BOOK, also produced by Disney, that I have not seen, a version that was not well received upon its initial release, although there are some folks who swear by it.  Not to mention the 1942 version starring Sabu.  But for me, the 1967 animated film has always been the most endearing.  Now comes the 2016 THE JUNGLE BOOK. All of these films are based on the collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) opens with a homage to the 1967 film, using the same music and the very same opening shot.  But this is no shot-by-shot remake, as there are plenty of differences between the two films.

THE JUNGLE BOOK is the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi) a young boy who had been abandoned in the jungle only to be rescued by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) who turned him over to a wolf pack, where he was raised as a wolf.  Mowgli enjoyed a happy life with the pack, with his adopted parents Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyon’go), and wolf cub brothers and sisters.

All is well until the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) who hates and fears humans decides that Mowgli must die.  The pack realizes that even with their combined strength, they are no match for Shere Khan, and so they arrange for Bagheera to bring Mowgli back to the man-village, to live safely with his own kind.

But Shere Khan is wise to their plan and attempts to kill Mowgli while he is still with Bagheera, who fights off the tiger while telling Mowgli to run, which the youth does.  On his own in the jungle, things look bleak for Mowgli until he is rescued by the laid back Baloo the Bear (Bill Murray).

But the danger is far from over.  Threats lurk behind every tree, as Mowgli and his friends must contend with Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johansson), King Louie (Christopher Walken) and his army of apes, and of course Shere Khan.

There is a lot to like about this new version of THE JUNGLE BOOK.  Probably my favorite part is the serious tone this movie takes. While director Jon Favreau keeps this one family friendly, it is not overly silly or nonstop funny as a lot of the “family” animated films are these days.  While there are certainly humorous moments in the film, for the most part, this JUNGLE BOOK is a serious adventure.  It even contains some rather dark moments.

When Bagheera tangles with Shere Khan to protect Mowgli it’s an exciting and rather vicious sequence.  For those of us who grew up with the 1967 version and wondered what it would be like if Bagheera actually fought Shere Khan, this film provides the answer.

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To protect Mowgli, Bagheera the Panther prepares to tangle with Shere Khan the Tiger.

The flashback sequence where we learn what happened to Mowgli’s real father is intense and disturbing.  Likewise, the fate of Mowgli’s wolf father Akela is just as jarring.

Christopher Walken’s King Louie is larger than life and powerfully aggressive.  There’s more King Kong in this interpretation than Louie.  Similarly, Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa the Snake is mesmerizing and frightening.

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Christopher Walken’s King Louie.

The cast is fantastic.  Young Neel Sethi is perfect as Mowgli, and all the voice actors here do a terrific job.

Ben Kingsley makes for a majestic Bagheera, matching Sebastian Cabot’s effort in the original.  Even better is Idris Elba as Shere Khan.  He turns the tiger into an absolute villain in this one, making Shere Khan lethal and scary.  George Sanders voiced the tiger in the 1967 film, and he gave the character an elegant gentlemanly villainy.  Anything remotely sophisticated is gone here.  Elba’s Shere Khan is less a proper Bond villain and more like someone you’d meet on THE WALKING DEAD.  He’s not a nice guy.

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Shere Khan.

Lupita Nyong’o is phenomenal as Mowgli’s wolf mother Raksha, while Giancarlo Esposito made me forget his icy portrayal of drug kingpin Gus Fring on TV’s BREAKING BAD and provides a dignified voice for Mowgli’s wolf father Akela.  Scarlett Johansson is spot-on as the menacing and mesmerizing snake Kaa, and Christopher Walken, in what is probably my favorite performance in the movie, makes King Louie a scene-stealing simian who seems like he walked off the set of the recent PLANET OF THE APES reboots with Andy Serkis.  Walken’s Louie is much more monstrous than the Louie from the animated version.

Emjay Anthony, who played Jon Favreau’s son in Favreau’s CHEF (2014),  and who I also enjoyed in the surprisingly good horror movie KRAMPUS (2015), is very effective as one of Mowgli’s wolf cub brothers.  And Garry Shandling, who passed away last month, provides the voice for Ikki the porcupine.

Of course, Bill Murray probably has the biggest shows to fill, playing the most iconic character from the animated movie, Baloo the Bear, voiced with impeccable perfection by country singer Phil Harris back in 1967.  While Murray certainly didn’t make me forget Harris, he more than holds his own and all in all does a decent job with the character. It helps that Baloo seems to be a natural fit for Murray.  He even gets to sing “The Bare Necesseties.”

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Baloo the Bear

This being a more serious rendition of the story, most of the memorable songs from the animated version by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman do not make it into this film, but a few do.

As I said, Bill Murray’s Baloo does perform “The Bare Necessites,” and some of the other familiar themes do make it into the film as background music, as in the Kaa the snake sequence.  Christopher Walken’s rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You” is the only song that is somewhat awkward.  Walken’s King Louie is just a bit too frightening to accept his breaking into song, and yet there is just something creepy enough about his Kong-like character singing that makes the scene work.

The CGI animation here is topnotch.  The animals all look amazing, especially Shere Khan, who is absolutely frightening.  While the film is available in 3D, I saw it in 2D and it looked just fine.

Jon Favreau does a terrific job here all around, from creating exciting suspenseful scenes to the superb CGI animation.  He also crafts some poignant moments as well, like the tender scenes between Mowgli and Raksha, and the sequence involving Mowgli and the elephants.

Rounding out this solid production is the screenplay by Justin Marks.  It keeps things serious throughout without sacrificing the “family” feel of the tale. So many of today’s CGI animated children’s movies are steeped in adult humor, and while this can be a lot of fun, the adventurous tone in THE JUNGLE BOOK is satisfying and refreshing.

If you’re in the mood for a rousing adventure, a film fit for the entire family, then look no further than Jon Favreau’s exceptional remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK.

The bare necessities of life will come to you
They’ll come to you!

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