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Remakes and reboots are an established phenomenon at this juncture. As much as film can be an artistic medium, so too is it largely beholden to the whims of capitalism and the quest for box office success. When patterns begin to form, sometimes they are easily recognizable; such as every studio’s desire to create a “shared universe” in the wake of 2012’s The Avengers. Other patterns develop with a degree of subtlety, creating a lens with which to view a certain era of time. Patterns may also develop within a sort of microcosm, in an isolated environment divorced from the whole. Disney has of late taken to adapting their animated classics into live-action films, an initiative that can be traced back to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland directed by Tim Burton.
Since that time, we have seen adaptations of Sleeping Beauty in the revisionist Maleficent, Cinderella in 2015, with The Jungle book and Pete’s Dragon rounding out 2016. Spring of this year sees the release of Beauty and the Beast, whose original animated counterpart marked a turning point in the history of animation and of Disney as a company. The train is still rolling as casting has just begun for Aladdin, news recently broke that Mulan is moving forward but will not be a musical and it has been reported that James Earl Jones will reprise his role as the voice of Mufasa in a live action version of The Lion King.
While these adaptations have hitherto been moderate to extreme box office heavyweights, the lingering critical question upon the release of each subsequent film has been whether the studio is doing anything with the new versions of the film to justify their existence beyond the revenue they generate. Does translating these classic animated films into a live action film bring anything to the table that wasn’t there in the original version?
Focusing solely on the latest film in the lineup, it feels as if Disney has for the first time put an emphasis on injecting something new into the narrative for the sake of justifying its own existence. The script’s portrayal of Belle, here portrayed as the creative/inventive genius in her father’s workshop, seems hell-bent on making strides to correct the perception that the character is simply a bookworm suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. The script moves a few steps further by feeling the need to give Belle her own “tragic backstory,” perhaps to put her in the same company as Lily James’ Cinderella. This would not be obtrusive, had the script not felt the need to do the same for Beast, giving a kind of justification for his decision to turn away the enchantress that places the curse upon his home.
Wanting to provide depth to a character is not usually a tick mark in the negative column. However, this adaptation does not provide enough attention to this subplot for it to carry enough weight. In the end, it feels like padding; largely unnecessary in most regards. Some minor additions to the script actually do work, such as the addition of Beast’s third-act solo following Belle’s departure or LeFou’s eventual about-face in his relationship with Gaston.
The 2017 Beauty and the Beast is a good film, though it is not a great one. Part of the reason for this is simply that the original on which it is based succeeds in just about every regard where the remake falters. It is somewhat disappointing, but if you look at the patterns, it is not all that unsurprising.
Pixar is a staple of my movie-watching history. I was perhaps ten years old when they released the first Toy Story film. I’m not sure anyone, even the folks at Pixar knew what a cultural phenomenon they were going to unleash on the world. They for sure could not have any idea what sort of brand recognition they were going to build for themselves. More than any other studio, Pixar is known for never disappointing. They make great films that both kids and adults can enjoy and they do so with creative integrity and with a level of perceived “old-school” professionalism. They’re about more than making money, they’re about making art. That has been the general consensus for almost twenty years. However, cracks in that facade have started to show as of late. The critical reception to Cars 2 last year certainly put a dent in the polished armor of Pixar. For the first time people started thinking that maybe there was a layer of vulnerability to the titans who had been on such an amazing creative roll with Wall-E and Up!. Cars 2 reeked of usual studio desperation to cash in on an entity that created revenue elsewhere, through merchandizing that is so prevalent that you can’t walk through a single big-box store without being bombarded by images of Lightning McQueen. The only other franchise by Pixar to get a sequel was Toy Story and you can see the difference in the approach. Yes, all of these films are in some way made to move units of merchandise. But with Toy Story, especially in the case of part three, you can tell that those involved worked tirelessly to make sure that everything was as close to perfection with the story before they ever thought of getting started.
That brings us to Brave. For the first time in as long as I can remember, the rumblings about this film weren’t 100% positive prior to release. People were citing that Cars 2 signaled a new era for Pixar that would leave fans disappointed and that the promo material for the film didn’t raise enough excitement the way the previews for something like Wall-E or Up! did. There was also the matter of the troubled production of the film, which I don’t know all the details of but included some shifting of directorial duties. This was supposed to be the first film headed up by a woman but evidently she got bumped and saddled with a co-director and her story wound up being tweaked by the new regime. I know all of this started to become the main talking point about the film for quite some time and doubt started creeping into my own head. I didn’t know if perhaps there was some sort of shakeup at Pixar that was going to provide a different sort of creative output.
I will say that Brave is different from what Pixar has released before. There is clearly more of a classic Disney influence with our lead character, Merida. She’s the sort of headstrong Disney-esque princess done with modern flair that helped ground Tangled and make that particular film work so well. Merida is definitely cut from a cloth that draws on the rich history of Pixar’s parent company, and her story is one that very well could have worked as a traditional hand-drawn tale had it been produced decades ago. As far as characters go, she’s one of the most likable leads in an animated film you could hope for. I see her becoming something of a popular role-model for many young girls. She has strength and assertiveness but also a fair shake of vulnerability that makes her tale very easy to embrace.
The thing about her story that I found most interesting is that I didn’t really know what the film was truly about until it was over. The makers of the film wisely don’t give away the crux of the film in the trailers. What you see in the previews is largely cut from the earliest parts of the film and Merida’s main quest isn’t really shown aside from a few quick cuts here and there. Going into a film completely fresh like that is incredibly liberating. I suggest you avoid spoilers for the film if you can because you will enjoy it a great deal more. I personally found Brave to be one of Pixar’s finest outings and the backlash against the marketing that I mentioned before may end up working in its favor. Any notion of the film not being up to Pixar’s standards will also immediately go out the window upon a single viewing.
One thing I feel the need to point out because I’m sure someone will chastise me if I don’t is that the film is groundbreaking in many ways. I know it’s not helmed 100% by a female director, but her hand is still helping to guide this ship, and that’s important. More important is that this is a major studio release with a female heroine and at no point during the film do we get an obligatory romantic subplot. Merida’s rebellion against tradition by refusing to marry the suitors presented to her would ring hollow if she found herself then entangled in a romantic quest of her own. Instead the film shows that a strong female lead can be involved in an engaging story without resorting to tired romantic tropes. I admire that.
All in all, this was a wonderful film. I heartily recommend it. I know I will probably be going to see it again sometime soon, if only to see if I can find the Pizza Planet truck Easter egg. I know I’ll spot it next time.