Beauty and the Beast

Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson

Director: Bill Condon

Writers: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos

Another year, another Disney remake. For the most part I’m not against the idea of updating and modernising Disney films in principle, but in practice I think the result has been mixed at best. Cinderella for example did a lot that worked better than in the original animation, but did just as much that did not. Meanwhile I felt that The Jungle Book did a lot that was different to the 1967 film, but little that I felt was better or worse. In both cases however I was open to the idea of the remake because I felt that both of the animations, while classics in their own rights, left something to be desired. In this, Beauty and the Beast is different. Beauty and the Beast, as far as I’m concerned, is as perfect as Disney gets. Not only is it a marvellous fairy tale with wonderful characters, fantastic music and beautiful animation, it’s also one of the few Disney films that actually gets better as I get older. It may be bias on my part, but I just couldn’t see what Disney hoped to accomplish by remaking this film.

In an 18th-century French provincial town lives Belle (Emma Watson), a solitary bookworm who dreams of excitement and adventure. She lives with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) and spends her days reading, thinking and rejecting the advances of the oafish Gaston (Luke Evans). When Maurice gets lost venturing through the forest, he seeks refuge in a castle where he is taken prisoner by the Beast (Dan Stevens). Belle comes to the castle in search of her father and offers herself as a prisoner in his place. The Beast, cursed by an enchantress to live as a horrific monster unless he should learn to love another and be loved in return, agrees. Also living in the castle are the Beast’s servants who, thanks to the curse, have taken the form of animate objects. These included Lumiere the candelabra (Ewan MacGregor), Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), and Mrs. Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson). With their help the Beast hopes to win Belle’s heart and break the curse.

Now, while I haven’t been a terribly big fan of the Disney remakes overall, I do appreciate how many of them have at least tried to do something different with the stories that we all know so well. This is why I found this new Beauty and the Beast to be so aggravating. This film, rather than trying something different, is almost as much of a shot-for-shot remake as Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. It’s actually a bit of a paradox really. This film is exactly like the 1991 film, and yet somehow nothing like it. It copies everything the original did but it lacks all of the magic and humanity that made the film work as well as it did. None of the movie’s events occur because they are motivated by the story or its characters, they occur because they’re following what happened in the original. The ballroom dance for example, by far the animation’s most iconic scene, is not built up to in any way. There’s no romantic dinner, no exchange of nervous glances, no playful sense of spontaneity; the film just cuts straight from the couple meeting at the staircase to them dancing in the ballroom. Why are they dancing? Because that’s what they did in the original movie.

I know that I shouldn’t be dwelling so much on how much better the 1991 classic is and comparing it with the remake, but this movie has brought it on itself. It spends so much time trying to recreate the original that I couldn’t help but be reminded of how wonderful and magical these moments felt when they took place in the animation as opposed to how empty and lifeless they felt here. When the film does vary, it’s to the story’s detriment. There are some additional scenes, such as when Gaston and Le Fou (Josh Gad) venture into the woods with Maurice to search for Belle, which only serve to pad the runtime. Occasionally there are some interesting ideas, one being the idea of Belle and the Beast bonding when they learn that both of their mothers died when they were young, but the film never goes anywhere with them. Then there are some elements like the magical teleporting book and the inclusion of a character called Agathe (Hattie Morahan) that are just plain stupid. The film’s greatest accomplishment is that it looks like Beauty and the Beast, which I think is the secret to the movie’s success. The sets, costumes and visual effects in this movie are so evocative of the original that it can sometimes be quite easy to fall for the illusion and think that you actually are watching Beauty and the Beast.

That illusion however is just as easily broken by the missteps the film takes in its direction. The casting of Emma Watson as Belle for example was a great idea on paper but not in practice. Not only is Watson a subpar singer whose voice lacks both power and expression, she’s also quite a limited actress. Her performance as Hermione worked because she was able to build that character very much in line with her own personality, but as Belle the limits of her acting ability became all too apparent. Her facial expressions rarely varied, her line deliveries lacked range and her body language felt forced. The rest of the cast meanwhile varies from bland to passable (with the exception of McGregor’s indefinable accent). Some of the CGI characters do pretty well and Gad gets an occasional laugh (despite his role as Disney’s first openly gay character being grossly overblown. I’m all for inclusivity but I’ve seen gayer characters in The Lord of the Rings!). Watson was the only one who struck me as out of her depth here.

I’d be lying if I said that I went into this movie with a completely open mind. Even putting aside my mixed on feelings on the Disney remakes I had already seen, this was a movie I already felt sceptical towards. After the trailer made it clear to me that this was very much going to be the same movie as the animation rather than a different take, I couldn’t understand why Disney would want to recreate what was already perfect (creatively I mean. The real rea$on Di$ney made thi$ film wa$ obviou$). I would have liked to be wrong. Nothing would have pleased me more than to be moved and enchanted by this film the same way I was by the original Beauty and the Beast. I wouldn’t exactly categorise this movie along with the worse of the Disney remakes. In fact, all things considered, it’s not even that bad a film. It was never as inane as Maleficent or as dire as Alice in Wonderland. On the other hand though, those two movies at least tried to take their stories into new directions. Thus, while Beauty and the Beast may not be the worst of these films, it is, for me, the most pointless.

Mr. Holmes

Cast: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Milo Parker

Director: Bill Condon

Writer: Jeffrey Hatcher

Sir Ian McKellen, having played both Gandalf and Magneto on screen, knows a thing or two about playing iconic characters. Often when a character becomes iconic, the audience mythologises them. Their images and ideas of these characters become so ingrained in their minds that any change or deviancy from the original is often regarded with hostility, even when it’s done well and with the best intentions. Indeed, history has actually shown that it is possible for these characters to be reinterpreted and reinvented in many different ways while still remaining true to the essence of what makes them iconic. Sherlock Holmes, one of the most iconic characters in all of film and literature, is a prime example in this regard. From Basil Rathbone as the dignified and enigmatic sleuth, to Jeremy Brett as the unhinged and eccentric obsessive, to Benedict Cumberbatch as the modern-day high-functioning sociopath, many have offered their own unique portrayals of the great detective while still remaining true to the heart and soul of the character. This film explores the theme of the mythology of heroes by showing Sherlock Holmes, a man who both defines and defies the legend surrounding him, in the autumn years of his life.

Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) is 93 years old and has retired to the country. Watson, Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson have long since departed and so he spends his days in isolation tending to his bees with only his housemaid Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) as company. As he looks back at the circumstances of his final case and Watson’s portrayal of what happened, he finds himself unsettled by the unsatisfactory outcome of the story. In his attempt to remember what really happened and what catastrophic event must have actually taken place to have driven him into retirement, Sherlock becomes all too aware of his failing mind. All he remembers are fragments concerning a beautiful woman whose picture he still holds. The man who made his name and who became a legend for his singular ability to solve puzzles and mysteries becomes lost in his quest to unlock the secrets to his own mind and to human nature.

Unlike the recent offerings of the Sherlock Holmes mythos by Guy Ritchie and Steven Moffatt; Mr. Holmes is a quieter, more tempered story. This is something I found to be both a strength and a weakness. On one hand the tranquil tone of the film reflects the docility of Holmes’ life as he spends his remaining days contemplating and reflecting on the days of adventure now long behind him. On the other hand watching this film can be a laborious task as the story does drag at certain parts. Since this film does emphasise that the Sherlock Holmes of Watson’s stories is in fact a romanticised depiction of the man himself, it should therefore be no surprise that this film contains little of the exhilaration or the thrills for which his stories are known. Nonetheless I still found myself somewhat underwhelmed by how modest and restrained this film turned out to be.

Sir Ian McKellen provides an elegant performance both as the ageing Sherlock Holmes slowly succumbing to the dilapidation of age and as the younger Holmes at the prime of his wit and intellect undergoing what will be his final case. The bond he forms with Roger provides an emotional core to the story that I hadn’t expected to see and eventually leads to some fine moments both touching and heartrending. However I still felt like it could have been taken further. I never really felt like the Sherlock of this film ever really substantiated the remarkable, singular mind from the stories and perhaps that was the point, but still it seemed to me like the film could have delved further into Holmes’ psyche and could have gone further to show the gears at work. As refined and poignant as I found McKellen’s performance to be, I never really felt like the film got beneath the skin of his character. Although this film did an admirable job of showing the devastating effects age can have on a person, I didn’t really think it left much of an impression on me or really made its impact felt. The elements were all certainly there, I just think they could have been developed further.

Still, with all of its restraint and shortcomings, there is much about this film to admire. McKellen shines in the role of the great detective and provides his most emotional performance in years. The film is artistically shot and provides some beautiful images of the English countryside. The idea of man and myth is a compelling one as the film discusses the legend of Sherlock Holmes and its relationship to the man himself as well as offering an insight into the question of what happens to the hero after the legend is over. Even though the story is understated, the emotional journey of Holmes is diffident and the film commits the heinous crime of underusing Laura Linney, it is an interesting and sometimes moving film that provides an intriguing take on Conan Doyle’s creation.


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee

Director: Peter Jackson

Writers: Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Guillermo del Toro

Before I go into depth about my feelings on this film, I figured that the best place to start is with my thoughts on the films that came before. Since this film is the final instalment of a trilogy that is a prequel to another trilogy, it is impossible to adequately judge this film without the context of the other films. Before Jackson embarked on this trilogy he of course made the Lord of the Rings trilogy which I absolutely love. Over the years I have acknowledged that the films are somewhat flawed and imperfect, but none of these criticisms have ever been able to diminish my fanboy love for this trilogy. Therefore I inevitably had high hopes for The Hobbit trilogy.

When An Unexpected Journey came out I thought that it was a decent enough start. Like most people at the time I was not convinced that an entire trilogy was necessary for this story, but I felt that the first film was solid enough in its own right. It was clear that Jackson was going for a lighter tone with this trilogy, which is unsurprising since The Hobbit is in fact a children’s book, so I was willing to forgive some of the sillier aspects of this film such as the comic relief provided by the dwarves, the excessive CGI and Radagast the Brown’s rabbit sled (that was particularly difficult to forgive). There were many good scenes in this film that balanced out the sillier aspects such as the Dwarven song, the meeting in Rivendell and Gollum’s riddles. Overall it succeeded in allaying some of my prior fears and, despite not achieving the same quality as the original Lord of the Rings films, was still enjoyable in its own right and was a promising enough start for the new trilogy.

I then went to see The Desolation of Smaug and I hated hated hated it. All of my worst fears came true in this film as I saw Jackson fall into the infamous George Lucas Trap, in which the director forgets what it was that made the original films work and sets about trying to outdo the originals rather than trying to recapture them. When Jackson first directed the Lord of the Rings it was the first time he had ever worked on a film this big, so he was naturally cautious to begin with. As the films went along and he grew more in confidence he gradually made the action bigger and made more use of CGI, which worked in this case because the growing scale of the action complemented the growing threat that the characters faced. However when Jackson set about making the Hobbit trilogy, a smaller story with a smaller threat, he was unable to pull himself back. Instead he tried to go bigger, which resulted in exaggerated and ridiculous action sequences that decreased the sense of danger. In the original trilogy there was never really a sense that any of the characters (with the exception of Legolas) were unkillable. Whenever these characters faced any danger, the scale of the action was both great and grounded enough to make the danger feel real. In The Hobbit trilogy however we are constantly presented with over-the-top action sequences that result in these characters surviving relatively unscathed, making it clear that these characters are indeed unkillable. Consequently these sequences are completely lacking in tension because it is clear that these characters are never in any actual danger.

The Desolation of Smaug was the ultimate offender in this regard because it is clear that Jackson was manipulating the action in order to allow the characters to survive to the extent that the action sequences defied reason, physics and logic. An example of this is that bloody awful river chase sequence where every possible aspect is manipulated to ensure the dwarves’ survival. The dwarves are conveniently given the exact weapons they need at the exact time they need them. The elves conveniently show up at the exact time they are needed to save another character’s life. Worst of all is Bombur’s barrel roll in which he is sent into an uncontrollable free-fall that conveniently knocks down every orc in his path, while he is left completely unharmed, before he re-joins the dwarves in a convenient empty barrel that is inexplicably there. It is almost impossible to believe that the characters are ever in any danger when the film allows for so much convenience to take place. The second film did have some good scenes such as those with the Necromancer and the confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug, but these were overshadowed by the grating action scenes and also by the pointless filler that was shoehorned in between like the forced dwarf-elf love story and the unnecessary Lake Town politics.

With all that in mind, I was very cautious when I sent to see The Battle of the Five Armies. However I ended up being pleasantly surprised and found it to be the strongest film in the trilogy. The main reason for this is that I finally got the action that I had been waiting for. For the first time the characters were faced with a threat that actually felt real. This was the first time that I actually felt the stakes of what was happening. This was the first time that I actually felt like I was watching a Lord of the Rings film.

The Battle of the Five Armies picks up right where the second film left off and shows Smaug’s attack on Lake Town. It is a thrilling scene in its own right, even if it does contain some of the gimmicks that annoyed me so much in the second film, but I couldn’t help but feel that it would have worked better as a climax rather than as an opening. When the sequence was over it felt almost anticlimactic. After a year of waiting to see what was going to happen, I was left with the thought ‘is it over already?’ Overall it was an exciting, if somewhat unsatisfying, way to open the film.

In the aftermath of Smaug’s attack the people of Lake Town are destitute and, with their homes destroyed, they are left with no option but to go to the Lonely Mountain and claim their share of the treasure. Meanwhile at the Lonely Mountain tension is building up between the dwarves as Thorin becomes obsessed with finding the Arkenstone. His mind is corrupted by this raging obsession and he finds himself unable to trust anyone, not even his own blood. He refuses to share the dragon’s treasure with either the men of Lake Town, nor with the elves of Mirkwood, and calls upon a Dwarven army to come to his aid as he prepares for war.

While this is happening Gandalf is still being held prisoner by the Necromancer until his allies come to his aid. This sequence (which, retrospectively, might have served as a better opening for the film) is exhilarating to watch as we get to see characters who are familiar to us in action as they band together to combat the threat who has now been identified as Sauron. Gandalf is rescued and must race to the Lonely Mountain to warn everyone about the Orc army heading their way.

We all know that the titular battle is going to happen sooner or later so there is a sense of agonising inevitability (in a good way) as we see Bilbo and Bard do all they possibly can to try and prevent a war while Thorin and Thranduil have already resigned themselves to this eventuality. The tension is unbearable, the stakes are high and the resulting battle is epic (even if it does contain some of the gimmicks that annoyed me so much in the second film). This was the film that I was waiting for after I first saw An Unexpected Journey and it was a satisfying way to end a trilogy which, at the end of the day, really did not need to be a trilogy. If the team behind the franchise had stuck to their original decision to make two films instead, I believe that The Hobbit would be held in much higher regard than it is now. As it stands, The Battle of the Five Armies is a good film in its own right and is a satisfactory conclusion for the deeply flawed Hobbit trilogy.