Bringing a fairy tale to life outside of an animated film is no easy task but director Christophe Gans is following in the steps of the Jean Cocteau who adapted Beauty and the Beast way back in 1946, and so with today’s technology it should be much easier… right?
The movie opens with a mother reading the story of “Beauty and the Beast” to her two young children which is the films first misstep as her reading becomes the movies narration and it is totally unnecessary. Nothing she’s says could not be implied, inferred or revealed by the numerous characters in the story which makes the narration redundant and distracting. It’s one thing to have a prologue that info dumps a bunch of exposition on you but it’s worse if that exposition keeps coming and coming.
Because this is a modern adaptation of a classic fantasy story you know you’re in for tons of CGI wonders and Christophe Gans does not hold back. Instead of finding out that Belle’s family is in dire financial straits due to their three trading ships going down in a storm through simple dialogue between characters, we get a narrated bit over dramatic CGI images of the ships going down in rough seas. I will say this the film is gorgeous, and as whole most of the CGI is very well done, but because you can do a thing does not necessarily mean you should. Some one needs to tell Peter Jackson and Christophe Gans that sometimes less is more.
Cocteau’s 1946 version was fairly close to the source material, and at first it looked like Gans was going to do the same when you find out about the whole family being in financial ruin due to a shipping disaster, which is right out of Gabrielle de Villeneuve’s original story, but then when we meet the family the book is pretty much chucked out the window. Now Cocteau himself made some changes, adding a wastrel of a brother as well as unsolicited suitor for Belle, but Gans adds three brothers and a den of criminals. Even stranger is the decision to change the two sisters from wicked, selfish, and vain bitches who treat Belle like a servant to more sympathetic characters that though still vain are more dim and comical than cruel. Astrid (Myriam Charleins) Clotilde (Sara Giraudeau) are quite upset about becoming poor while Belle (Léa Seydoux) seems to look forward to living a quiet life in the country.
When Belle’s father (André Dussollier) gets word that one of his supposed lost ships has turned up he and one of his sons ride into town only to find out that the local authorities have seized all his cargo. Things get worse when the merchant runs into Perducas (Eduardo Noriega), a leader of the local criminal element who the son owes a great deal of money to. The merchant flees into the woods to escape them and is soon lost in the forest during a particularly nasty snow storm. It is then that he stumbles upon the magical land ruled by the Beast (Vincent Cassel) and is given food and shelter.
Before leaving home to retrieve his cargo Astrid and Clotilde had given their father a list of expensive items they wanted now that they were to be rich again, when the merchant asks what Belle would like all she asked for was a rose as she had been unable to grow them at their current residence. Now the merchant is shocked to find chests stuffed with treasure and all the items on his daughters list, all but the rose for Belle. Loading the treasure on to his horse he begins to head out of this magical domain when he spots a mountainous rose bush, he stops and picks one for Belle. A huge stone giant’s head bursts out of the bushes and from upon it springs The Beast.
It is now that we finally get a good look at the Beast and I must say the design of him is quite nice. I’m just not sure why they decided to go full on CGI with it instead just using standard make-effects that have only gotten better over the years. This is a minor quibble as Vincent Cassel’s Beast for the most part is quite effective looking.
The merchant is chastised for stealing a rose, the Beast’s most cherished possession, and is told that he may go and say goodbye to his children but then he must return the next day to take his punishment. If he does not return the Beast will murder his entire family, “A life for a rose.” When the merchant relates his tale his sons and daughters are quite distraught but it is Belle who leaps into action. She blames herself for her mother dying in childbirth and will not be responsible for her father’s death as well. So Belle locks her father in his room, takes the horse that the Beast had enchanted with the route and leaves for her apparent doom.
Belle bravely enters the castle, finds a beautiful gown readied for her, dons it and heads down for dinner. There the Beast tells her that she has the full run of the estate but is forbidden to go out on the grounds at night and that she must join him in the dining hall every night at this time. She is also not to even think about escaping as the forest would close in on her. This is the gruff and scary Beast we expect but sadly what the movie then fails to deliver is a reason for Belle to ever fall in love with him.
One of the strangest additions to the story is the “Tadums” who are these overly cute CGI creations that are basically beagles with big heads and eyes and that can stand upright. At one point the incessant narration tells us that they “became her best friends” but unless there is a director’s cut out there that I am unaware as this does not happen. These magical mutant creations serve no purpose to the story and should have never existed.
Now you can’t have a Beauty and the Beast story without the magic mirror, but because this is a big overindulgent version it’s not going to be a simple hand mirror that shows her whatever she desires to see, no this mirror is a massive scrying pool type thing that comes to her in her dreams and shows her the Beast’s backstory.
Each night she has dreams of the castle as it used to be, and of the Prince who once lived in it. He was in love with a beautiful Princess (Yvonne Catterfeld) who agreed to marry him if he promised to stop hunting this elusive golden doe, saying that his obsession with it was keeping him away from her. It comes as a shock to no one when the idiot Prince breaks his promise as he and his friends finally hunt the creature to the ground and put an arrow in it only for it to turn out that the Princess was the golden doe all along. It seems that she was a forest nymph who wanted to experience true love, and though she takes being killed by her lover rather well her father, the forest god, doesn’t. Thus the curse is placed transforming the Prince into the Beast and his friends to giant statues.
During the day Belle continues to wander aimless around the castle until one night after dinner she has a dance with the Beast. Sadly at no point does Angela Lansbury start singing about “A tale as old as time” instead the night is eventually ruined when she sneaks out to watch the Beast hunt and gorily eat his prey. She is put off by his animalistic nature, flees the castle grounds and into the winter surroundings but she is quickly chased down by the Beast. He catches her, pins her to the ice of the frozen lake, and is about to force a kiss on her when the ice breaks plunging her into its icy depths.
“If you love something and it runs away hunt it down, proceed towards sexual assault and then almost drown it.” That’s how that saying goes, right? Also what’s with the Liberace fur coat?
The Beast brings her back to the castle where the effects of her near death experience are repaired by the healing pool in her room. I’m sorry but assault and near manslaughter is not negated by magical healing and is certainly no basis for a healthy relationship. Belle asks the Beast if she can go and visit her family as she misses them. He agrees, but warns her that if she doesn’t return the next day as promised, he will die of a broken heart. Once again I call bullshit, we have seen nothing except one measly ballroom dance number to draw any conclusion that the Beast is that madly in love with Belle. That we know he had already loved a woman in the past and accidentally killed her does not help his case.
So Belle goes home to find her father is ailing and her siblings hiding out from Perducas and his goons. She uses the magic healing water on her father but her eldest brothers upon finding a large jewel amongst Belle’s things decides to take her horse and head to the Beast’s castle to rob it. With brilliant thinking like this it’s no wonder the family is broke. Along the way he runs into Perducas and offers to lead him and his men to this abandoned castle, bargaining the treasure for his family’s life. This leads to the big action finale where the gang loot the castle but then the giant stone statues and the Beast proceed to kill them all.
Belle shows up in just the nick of time to stop the Beast from having her brother flattened by one of his giant friends and then she even asks the Beast to spare the life of Perducas. To prove his humanity to Belle he does so and is rewarded for this act of kindness by getting an arrow stabbed in his chest by Perducas, the same golden arrow that he’d used on his forest nymph wife.
This also causes the curse to… go nuts? Reverse? Explode? Hell I have no clue, the statues crumble and vines that looked to have escaped from the Jumanji board game chase Belle and her brothers as they bring the mortally wounded Beast to the healing pool. While the Beast takes his bath he asks Belle, “Do you think that with a little patience, or maybe out of habit, you could have… loved me?” Her response is of course, “But I already love you.” I mean he is only a dude who accidentally murdered the love of his life, threatened your entire family with murder, kept you locked up in a weird Brigadoonish castle, and almost killed you after chasing you across a frozen lake. What’s not to love?
Now I went in hoping to really love this film as it’s a great story and it’s by the director of The Brotherhood of the Wolf, which is another awesome French film of his, but unfortunately Christophe Gans seems to have got himself caught up in the visual splendor of this magical world he had created but then didn’t bother to include any characters we give a damn about. We spend way too much time with Belle’s idiot brothers and sisters and the gang of cutthroats when this time would have been better spent with our leads. In this film Belle’s defining characteristic is her heaving cleavage and the Beast has even less depth to his character. He just growls and stalks his castle and we are supposed to care for him because he has a tragic backstory? At least the snotty prince in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast never shot anybody.
P.S. Of course the woman reading the story turns out to be Belle; she and the now human Beast have moved in with her father on his little farm because living in a castle is so last century.
La Belle et la Bête (2014)
This version of La Belle et la Bête is visually stunning and closer to the original fairy tale than the Disney one, but sadly there is no emotional core to get us to care about anyone making the whole film seem like a candyfloss made of Nutrasweet.