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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The Art of the Jungle

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Sometimes a movie should be approached from the perspective of its artistry more than its philosophy or its storyline. The new Jungle Book is one of those films.

Sure, we could examine the underlying theme represented by the “Law of the Jungle”: For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack. We could debate whether this philosophy favors the individual or the community. (I think it favors the individual, since “the Law” feels more like an invitation and a promise than a command or a threat.) We could also comment on the Law of Peace that wary animal species establish in the movie to gain safe access to water during a drought: the animals agree not to attack one another when they are at the only available watering hole. The truce is enforced simply by their own self-interest and their consideration of long-term consequences should they violate it. Isn’t that a lot like the libertarian tenet that commerce or trade is preferable to war for people who have different values and beliefs?

Even more stunning is the way the animals move — not as animals imitating people, but with the darting gestures or lumbering heft of animals who happen to speak.

We could also howl at the way the well-structured anapestic rhythm of Kipling’s original language has been marred by the wolves’ substituting And the Wolf that keeps it shall prosper, but the Wolf that breaks it must die for Kipling’s measured scansion: And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die — a small thing, but I shall use it in my intro to poetry courses.

But right now, let’s just focus on the beauty of this film, the quality of the acting, the massive number of people who worked in harmony to produce it, and the amazing technology that made it possible.

The film opens with Mowgli (Neel Sethi), clad in a red loincloth, dashing barefoot through the jungle over rocks, across trees, through bushes until a branch snaps and he plummets to the ground. But there aren’t any trees — or grass or rocks or bushes, or ground for that matter; the movie was filmed entirely through digital animation and live-capture action in a studio in West L.A. The VFX (Visual Effects) are simply stunning, from the realistic blades of grass and bark of the trees to the fur on the animals and the way the wind ruffles the scene. Even more stunning is the way the animals move — not as animals imitating people, but with the darting gestures or lumbering heft of animals who happen to speak.

Adding to the sense of realism is the fact that Mowgli has scars, bruises, scrapes, and cuts, as one would expect of a young boy who lives in the wild. (In fact, watch for the scars on his shoulders — one seems to be an R, and the other a K, in a nod to Rudyard Kipling.)

Twelve-year-old Neel Sethi was the only live actor in this film and performed entirely on a blue screen set, assisted by mechanical stand-ins and director Jon Favreau, who often stood just off screen to help focus Sethi’s eye lines. He had to imagine the animals pursuing him, the bees stinging him, the trees he was climbing, and the conversations he was having. As Mowgli, he appears in nearly every scene, so the success of this $175,000,000 production rested on his acting abilities. He is utterly believable and engaging throughout.

Kipling wrote many poems encouraging boys to behave like men. In this film, Favreau encourages humans to be themselves.

An additional challenge with a film of this scope is scheduling the live work fast enough so the actor doesn’t age over the course of the film. That means all the animation had to be set in stone before live filming began — no retakes are possible when the other cast members require weeks or months to recreate.

The actors who voiced the animals did their work separately within a sound booth, of course, long before Sethi entered the scene. They, too, must imagine the action and react to other characters virtually. They imbue their characters with their personalities simply through the inflection of their voices, and rely on animators to add gestures and facial expressions to bring the characters to life in other ways. Bill Murray as the bear Baloo and Christopher Walken as the gigantopithecus King Louis (an orangutan in the 1967 version) are particularly impressive. Murray’s low-key, offhand, Teddy-bear delivery is funny and endearing, while Walken’s Brooklyn accent is completely different from the way Louie Prima envisioned King Louis in the 1967 version. In fact, Louis’ sinister entrance is reminiscent of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in Apocalypse Now.

This is not a musical, but it would not be The Jungle Book without some of the beloved songs from the 1967 version (which was the last animated feature on which Walt Disney himself worked; he died before it was released). Favreau introduces the familiar melodies subtly within the background score, and when they do sing, it happens naturally, the way one would sing on a sunny day. Baloo and Mowgli float down a river singing “The Bear Necessities,” but they don’t dance. Other songs from the original also show up, but not until the credits roll (Kaa’s “Trust in Me” performed by Scarlett Johannson, King Louis’ “I Wanna Be Like You” performed by Christopher Walken, and a reprise of “The Bear Necessities” by Kermit Ruffins. So don’t be in a hurry to jump up from your seat when the book closes.

The Jungle Book is a story about self-discovery, manhood, and learning whom to trust. This version also presents a fair view of humans, who can be bad, as represented by their introducing fire to the jungle (never mind that lightning had been causing forest fires long before that!) but can also be very good if allowed to develop in a natural habitat. At first Mowgli suppresses his human qualities of problem-solving and tool-building, guided by his guardian panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and his adoptive wolf-mother Raksha (Lupito Nyong’o) to “fit in with the pack.” But Baloo sees the value of Mowgli’s remarkable inventiveness, and encourages him to use it productively. Eventually Mowgli’s tool-building skills save the pack and everyone else in the jungle.

Influenced by 19th-century sensibilities about gender roles and manhood in particular, Kipling wrote many poems encouraging boys to behave like men. In this film, director Favreau encourages humans to be themselves. By taking care of himself, Mowgli also takes care of the pack. I think that’s a pretty good law of the jungle.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Jungle Book," directed by Jon Favreau. Walt Disney Pictures, 2016, 105 minutes.



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Who Axed the Lorax?

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It’s no secret that Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) leaned a little to the Left. His delightful, whimsical books often had an underlying tone that was anti-war, anti-tyrant, and anti-pollution. Or, to spin it more favorably, he wanted peace, freedom, and cleanliness.

Seuss' The Lorax (1971) made a strong case for cleaning up the environment. It tells the story of a zealous young businessman, the Once-ler, who comes across a pristine forest of “Truffula Trees” and immediately begins chopping them down to use their silky leaves to make “thneeds” (the Seussian equivalent of an all-purpose Widget). His irresponsible use of natural resources damages crops, dirties the air, and mucks up the water, causing the original inhabitants — the bear-like Barbaloots, birds, and fish — to move away in search of cleaner climes.

There is nothing subversive or socialistic about this charming little story. Libertarians, in fact, should welcome a story that privileges property rights (the critters, after all, were there first) and individual responsibility (the book ends with “unless someone like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better. / It’s not.”) Basically Dr. Seuss is saying, “Play nice. If you make a mess, clean it up. If someone was there first, wait your turn. Be responsible for your actions.”

Now Disney Studios has turned this gentle story about personal responsibility into a diatribe against individuality, free markets, and the entire capitalist system, with its animated version of the tale. They call it Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, but that's a misnomer. This is Hollywood's The Lorax, through and through. And it's an insidious shadow of the original story. The only thing missing from this indoctrination piece is a Five Year Plan.

In this movie, private ownership is bad. Very bad. Even if you provide a comfortable standard of living.

The film version begins 50 years after the books ends, in the community of Thneedville, which is run by a crony capitalist named O’Hare (Rob Riggle). The new story is reminiscent of The Truman Show (1998); the residents of Thneedville live inside a bubble city, oblivious to the desolation and pollution that exist just outside their city walls and ceiling. Inside, "everything was plastic and fake and they liked it that way." Somehow, they manage to enjoy a happy middle class standard of living, despite the fact that no vegetation exists and no one seems to work or produce anything. This is probably the most puzzling part of the film: if life is so bad, why does it seem so good? Apparently, ignorance really is bliss.

O’Hare controls the town, although he doesn’t seem to be an elected official. (We can’t have a government figure as a bad guy in the new Disney universe!) Apparently O’Hare simply owns the town, as well as everyone and everything in it. In this movie, private ownership is bad. Very bad. Even if you provide a comfortable standard of living.

When a pretty young girl named Audrey (Taylor Swift) yearns to see a real tree, a lovestruck young boy named Ted (Zac Efron) determines to find one for her. That means going outside the town's bubble to the desolate place where trees used to grow. There he meets the Once-ler (Ed Helms), who tells Ted the sad story of how capitalism, greed, and materialism led to environmental destruction.

What follows should be a textbook example of how the free market works to provide jobs, goods, and higher standards of living. Fifty years earlier, the Once-ler had an idea for a versatile invention: a "Thneed" made from the renewable leaves of the Truffula tree. At first no one is interested in Once-ler's invention, but when they see one on the head of a stylish young beauty, everyone has to have one. This is Say's Law in action: supply creates its own demand. Consider the fact that no one demanded a handheld device that could store 5,000 songs until Apple invented the iPod. Then everyone had to have one. Similarly, Once-ler's Thneed creates its own demand. To keep up with production he enlists his family members and pays the Barbaloots to harvest the Truffula leaves, using marshmallows as money.

But in this bizarro world, the free market becomes a tool of destruction. The product Once-ler has invented is clearly an unnecessary accessory (in the eyes of the filmmakers), and as we all know from studying Chairman Mao, if it isn't fundamentally functional, no one should have it. The "money" Once-ler pays the critters (marshmallows) become a seductive drug that saps their will and good sense. He doesn't pay them for doing an honest day's work; he bribes them to stay out of his way. Once-ler's family members turn out to be vile, redneck imbeciles who treat everyone with contempt — including Once-ler. Impatient to reach the treetops, Once-ler speeds up the harvesting process by cutting down the trees, cutting off his supply as well.

The film completely ignores the principle of property rights. The trees and the land on which they grow belong to the critters and the Lorax. Without their permission, Once-ler has no right to take the tree silk, to build a factory on their land, or to cut down their trees. But in a film whose point is that everyone (and thus no one) owns the land, this would sidetrack the communal message.

The fact is that people take care of property that belongs to them, and they tend not to take care of property that belongs to someone else. When loggers were awarded grants to cut trees on national land, they chopped indiscriminate swathes through forest after forest. But when they were allowed to own the land, they became tree growers as well as tree cutters. In fact, most of the deforestation in the United States took place nearly 200 years ago. Since then, forest cover has increased steadily, partly because national forests are protected, but also because companies replant what they harvest.

Perhaps the most insidious scene of the movie is the lively, jivey, upbeat song, "How bad can I be?" Dressed in a money-green suit, the Once-ler sings joyfully and mischievously, "How bad can I be? I'm just doing what comes naturally / How bad can I be? I'm just following my destiny / . . . All the customers are buying . . . And the money's multiplying . . . And the PR people are lying . . . And the lawyers are denying. . . . Who cares if a few trees are dying? How bad can I be? / A portion of proceeds go to charity." The song is bouncy and catchy and chillingly fun. The message is clear: humans are naturally bad, and their badness has to be governed. Even when they do something good, such as giving to charity, they must have a devious, ulterior motive.

As we all know from studying Chairman Mao, if a product isn't fundamentally functional, no one should have it.

Ironically, the film ends on what really does come naturally: operating the invisible hand of the free market. After telling Ted his story, the now repentant Once-ler assigns him the task of taking the final Truffula seed and planting it in the center of town where all will see it and want a tree of their own. Again, if that isn't Say's Law in action, I don't know what is: supply creates its own demand.

Seuss' book ends here, with a gentle reminder to be responsible for your own little piece of the earth. Disney keeps going, however. O'Hare and his henchmen follow Ted on a frolicking chase through town. Why must they stop the tree planting? Because trees will produce oxygen, and oxygen will clean up the air, and clean air will destroy O'Hare's bottled air business. As always, the greedy capitalist destroys the planet for his own gain.

What has happened to a country — and a movie studio — that once praised the virtue of lemonade stands and paper routes? Hollywood — center of one of the nation’s largest capitalist businesses — has long been disdainful toward business and capitalism. But with the G-rated Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, even Hollywood has hit new lows. The Loraxis a pleasant, entertaining movie with a vile message. When I asked my 8-year-old grandson whether he liked it, he smiled brightly and nodded his head. He loves Dr. Seuss! Then he added, "But it's all propaganda!" A smart cookie, that grandson of mine. His parents have taught him well. But he's just as attracted to fluff as those critters were attracted to marshmallows.

Since this is a movie about the bottom line, here is the bottom line from this movie: money is bad. Homes, food, and entertainment are good. But where do homes, food, and entertainment come from if we don't earn money? The government, of course. And how do we get people to work and produce without money? Mandatory volunteerism, I guess. Hmmmm. Hard work. No money. Food and shelter provided. . . .Wasn't that called communism in the last century? And slavery in the century before that?

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dr. Seuss's The Lorax," directed by Chris Renaud. Disney Studios, 2012, 86 minutes.



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