Trust the Beauty, or Risk the Beast?

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While flipping through the channels I recently came across the 2004 remake of The Flight of the Phoenix. It led to the obvious question: why remake a perfect movie?

Sure, the original (1966) was filmed in black and white, but so was Citizen Kane. I frankly think the black and white cinematography contributed to the bleakness of the landscape and the hopelessness of the crash survivors. The remake is contrived and uninspiring, with no redeeming value beyond its color film. Why mess with perfection?

I asked myself the same question this week while watching two recent remakes of classic films that coincidentally share a theme: Beauty and the Beast and King Kong.

The updated story gave Kong a more sympathetic personality as the lovesick beast, but the script doesn’t wear well, especially the airheaded lines written for the female lead.

Do we really need another version of King Kong? Perhaps it was useful to remake the original 1933 black and white version that starred Fay Wray as the beautiful actress Ann Darrow who tames the heart of the beast. Masterpiece though it was for its time, its stop-action animation is laughably jerky for modern viewers. A makeover with modern special effects made it more accessible to the common audience, although film aficionados believe the original’s distance from verisimilitude helps to make it mythic.

The 1976 version with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange updated the script as well as the special effects, trading the film director for an oil magnate (Charles Grodin) and the Empire State Building for the World Trade Center. The updated story gave Kong a more sympathetic personality as the lovesick beast, but the script doesn’t wear well, especially the airheaded lines written for Lange’s character, the actress Dwan.

The 2005 version with Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow and Jack Black as the director Carl Denham was spectacular, improving upon the technical quality of the film (and the acting) while returning to the original 1933 setting, the original storyline, and the original climax atop the Empire State Building. Watts was especially luminous in the role of the ingénue “whose beauty killed the beast,” and her tenderly flirtatious scene with Kong in Central Park, where so many romantic comedies have been filmed, was poignant and lovely.

This aspect of the film gives it a slightly libertarian tone, but for the most part it’s pretty standard prehistoric monster fare.

That should have become the definitive update of King Kong; there was no need for another. But here we are with Kong: Skull Island, and a quite different story. In each of the earlier versions, King Kong is captured, transported out of his wilderness habitat, and put on display as an entertainment spectacle, with an awe-inspiring chase scene culminating atop the world’s tallest building. By contrast, the latest version takes place entirely on Skull Island, where the hapless protagonist is not an entertainment impresario but a geologist and monster hunter who has enlisted the US Army as a protective escort. The girl (Brie Larsen) is a photographer, not an ingénue; the antagonist (Samuel L. Jackson) is a colonel, not an oil magnate; and Kong is not a lovesick tyrant but a benevolent king who has been risking his own life and safety to protect his subjects — the other creatures who inhabit the island — from a colony of evil underground lizards. Instead of trying to capture Kong and take him to civilization, these explorers and their escorts are trying to escape the island. The movie is often reminiscent of Jurassic Park with its numerous “Eww!”-inspiring deaths in the jaws of prehistoric creatures munching humans like appetizers.

While the 1976 King Kong asked us to view women as airheads and petroleum corporations as villains, Kong: Skull Island invites us to contemplate important political and social questions. What business does the US military — or scientists and anthropologists, for that matter — have going into other lands, guns a-blazing? How can we tell the good guys from the bad guys in a culture that’s foreign to us? Who should shoulder the blame when we get it wrong? How can we best transform enemies into allies? When is it right to defy authority? This aspect of the film gives it a slightly libertarian tone, but for the most part it’s pretty standard prehistoric monster fare.

Another new film based on the beauty and the beast dichotomy is, well, Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s live-action remake of its 1991 cartoon that was the first animated film to be nominated by the Academy for Best Picture in the feature film division — it’s that good. The score for both films, written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, is sublime. I’ve heard the title ballad, sung wistfully in the original film by Angela Lansbury, hundreds of times over the past 25 years, and the opening strains never fail to elicit a nostalgic tear. It is a perfect film.

So why remake the animated Beauty and the Beast? As it happens, this “perfect film” was a remake too. Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live action film is a magical fairy tale less known to American audiences because it is French. The story is more true to Madame La Prince de Beaumont’s book, in which a father asks his three daughters what they would like him to bring them when he goes into town. The two older girls ask for jewels and dresses, but the youngest wants only a rose. This later becomes significant, because the beast, whose spell can only be broken by true love, realizes that a girl who loves nature instead of material goods could see past his ugliness and recognize the goodness inside him.

I’ve heard the title ballad, sung wistfully in the original film by Angela Lansbury, hundreds of times over the past 25 years, and the opening strains never fail to elicit a nostalgic tear.

Cocteau alludes to several fairy tales in his film: Belle is the Cinderella who must clean while her sisters play; she’s the Snow White who can see into a magic mirror; her bedroom in the Beast’s castle is a garden like Georgina’s boudoir in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” Instead of animated special effects, Cocteau uses creative costuming to suggest that humans have been transformed into furnishings, and his lack of explanation adds to the magical effect. But this is a grownup fairy tale, not geared toward children. It’s sensuous and seductive. Leaving Belle’s room, the Beast drags his hand lingeringly across the exposed breast of a statue. Belle, lying on her bed, caresses the mirror on which she sees the Beast’s face. Cocteau’s direction is deliberately unrealistic and balletic, adding to the otherworldly effect. It is a beautiful, magical film, made all the more magical by the ambiguous ending — has the spell been broken and are they going to live happily ever after in his kingdom, or have they died and gone to heaven? The hissing swans in the stream where Belle finds the Beast near death suggest the latter; in mythology, swans and rivers are a symbol of “crossing over” to death.

During the past 30 years, Disney Studios successfully adapted many of the best-loved animated stories, including B&B, for the musical stage. Now they’re in the midst of adapting 20 of those animated films to live-action format. Perhaps the studio heads foresee a time when animation won’t be as appealing to children; perhaps they simply realize that releasing a new version of an old favorite is guaranteed box office gold. Indeed, the new B&B earned $357 million worldwide in its first weekend alone, and it doesn’t show signs of slowing down as mothers who were little girls a generation ago flock to the theater with their broods for a sweet spoonful of nostalgia.

So — is it really that good? Half a billion dollars worth of good? The music is just as wonderful, and a new song written for the Beast when Belle leaves him to rescue her father provides a deeper character development for him. The supporting characters who have been turned into household furnishings by the witch’s spell are richly drawn and charmingly voiced by such seasoned actors as Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, and Audra McDonald. But as the voices of household furnishings, they aren’t actually live action, are they? They’re simply animated in a different way. And it works wonderfully, especially when the furnishings return to their human forms and we recognize them with the same spark of joy as if they were departed relatives returning from the dead.

Watson has an unhealthy, unnatural thinness about her that always makes me want to give her a cookie or two.

However, Belle (Emma Watson) is a disappointment in many ways. Known for her role as Hermione in the eight Harry Potter movies, Watson is believable as an asexual bookworm but not as the buxom beauty who could capture the interest of the town’s lecherous and superficial Gaston (Luke Evans). Watson has an unhealthy, unnatural thinness about her that always makes me want to give her a cookie or two. Anorexia simply isn’t a good look for the most beautiful girl in town. By contrast, Brie Larsen, who plays the beast’s love interest in Kong: Skull Island, has a natural, healthy, unaffected beauty that would have been perfect for Belle — the girl whose very name means “beautiful.” Surely in all of Hollywood, with a film budget of $160 million, the casting director could have found a more believable actress to carry this film. Or maybe anorexia is a good look in Hollywood these days?

Watson’s singing voice is weak, and her speaking voice is cloyingly irritating with its contrived and officious accent. (I suspect she needed elocution lessons when she was cast to play Hermione, and was too young to make it feel natural.) For the Harry Potter movies the haughty, artificial accent works — Hermione is a schoolgirl trying to be noticed in a boys’ world, and her bookish intelligence successfully counterbalances her waiflike stature. By contrast, Belle’s most significant character trait is her independence — her refusal to bend to society’s expectations. The artificial accent belies that determination to be true to herself.

To return to my original question: this may not be a “tale as old as time,” but it is a tale as old as film — the story about whether to trust the beauty of a classic film or risk the beast of a remake. Had I never seen the originals, I would probably have loved both these films. Kong is an exciting adventure with well-drawn characters, and the music of B&B soars, despite the weakness of Belle. Perhaps each generation needs its own version of the classics, updated to reflect the social concerns of the day: the feminism of the ’70s, the corporate greed of the ’90s, the military overreach of today. Cocteau’sB&B, made at the end of WWII, alludes to the bestiality of war and the humanizing effect of a woman’s influence: the Beast’s hands smoke when he kills his prey, but the narrator assures us, “A young maiden has the power to tame the beast in a man.”

Cocteau opens his Beauty and the Beast with the statement, “Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us.” Moviemakers wield that same kind of mythic power. Perhaps that’s why I prefer the classics among films: they speak to a mythology and social discourse that were current in my youth, and continue to resonate for me today.


Editor's Note: Review of "Kong: Skull Island," directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Legendary Entertainment, Warner Brothers, 2017, 118 minutes; and "Beauty and the Beast," directed by Bill Condon. Disney Studios, 2017, 129 minutes.



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Charles Barr

The Flight of the Phoenix (1966) was shot and released in color. It's an excellent movie that is still enjoyable to watch today.

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