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Film
by David J. Skal

Ghoulies, Ghosties, Beasties


BEFORE I emerged as a quintessential midcentury "monster kid," I was an equally rabid Disney devotee. I still clearly remember watching the opening of Disneyland on television at the age of three, and at the age of four, making my first media appearance on a Cleveland television program, sporting a coonskin hat and warbling the Davey Crockett theme, punctuating each verse with an emphatic blast from a pop-gun. My mother, meanwhile, helped me write a fan letter to Walt Disney himself, including my own pre-school pencil sketches of Donald and Daisy Duck. I actually received a thank-you letter back, accompanied by a signed color photo. Neither has survived, and while I now suspect that Uncle Walt didn't personally sign the items, they nonetheless amounted to a warmly welcomed gesture and validation.

But my interest in the world of Disney also had its shadow side. The most compelling elements of the Magic Kingdom consisted of the scary stuff: the evil queen in Snow White and her Jekyll-Hyde transformation into a repulsive crone, the diabolical figures of Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and the winged demon orchestrating "Night on Bald Mountain" in Fantasia, the cursed kids turning into donkeys in Pinocchio (calling Dr. Moreau!), and that damned banshee in Darby O'Gill and the Little People, which gave me a truly upsetting nightmare. One reason my parents balked at letting me have my first copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland was because at the age of nine I was still sleeping with a ragged Mickey Mouse hand puppet as a security blanket.

As with the classic fairy tales on which they were based, the Disney films have always offered a way for young people to get a handle on their anxieties, being scared and soothed at the same time. Monster movies do the same thing in a more concentrated way. Disney's latest film, a live-action remake of its animated musical Beauty and the Beast, is a monster movie par excellence, and its director, Bill Condon, is a fellow monster-boomer who also has a prodigious knowledge and deep affection for movies and musicals in general, and it all comes together in a spectacularly successful way.

As a writer and director, Condon has been attracted to fantastic subjects from the very beginning of his career, and his earliest screenplays, for Strange Behavior (1981) and Strange Invaders (1983), presaged things to come. Gods and Monsters (1998), which he wrote and directed, earned him an Oscar for best adapted screenplay (from Christopher Bram's novel Father of Frankenstein), and established him as a significant Hollywood player, with a special flair for stage musical adaptations. His screenplays for Chicago (2002) and Dreamgirls (2006) were a prelude to an eventual Broadway assignment of his own, the critically acclaimed 2015 Broadway revival of the musical Side Show, based on the tumultuous lives of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. If Gods and Monsters was glowingly infused with the spirit of Frankenstein director James Whale, Side Show was distinctly haunted by the restless ghosts of Tod Browning and Freaks.

Full disclosure: I worked closely with Bill on the behind-the-scenes documentary for Gods and Monsters, and have been an unabashed fan ever since; the close-up opportunity to watch him direct only deepened my appreciation of his work and sensibility. In particular, I remember his recalling that the lurid colors in the old Hammer horror films reminded him of stained glass windows in the Catholic churches of his childhood. I suspected from that moment we might have a few things in common.

One of the most common complaints I've noticed about Condon's new film, stated or implied, has been that the first Disney incarnation was so perfect, and so beloved, that a live-action remake is just money-hungry heresy. I hadn't watched the 1991 version since its first release, at which time I was quite impressed, and its status as the first animated film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar seemed well justified. The Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman songs amounted to a classic Broadway show that never really happened (the subsequent stage version frankly never did the music justice). But in retrospect, and upon a fresh viewing, Disney's first try does show its seams. A pre-Pixar artifact, it lacks the full-CGI dimensionality and hyper-reality that defines animation today, and which audiences expect, if not demand. The twenty-fifth anniversary Blu-ray package, tellingly, features the title characters rendered with a depth and substance absent from the film itself. While the 1991characters are wonders of two-dimensional draftsmanship, and expressively engaging as anything the studio has ever produced, the overall effect today is flat and dated. Design-wise, the picture doesn't hold a singing candlestick to the achievement of earlier Disney classics, especially the beautiful painted backdrops of Cinderella (1950). Belle's village seems underpopulated, and the village itself built on the cheap. The haunted castle's walls are blank panels.

Condon, by contrast, brings a lush maximalism to bear. The crowds in the village and ballroom scenes are handled with choreographic panache. For once, the 3-D process is more than just an effect, employed instead for some especially pleasing spatial compositions. Do try to see it in Imax. The film is considerably longer than its eighty-three-minute predecessor, but there's a heck of a lot more to look at, too—more meticulous detailing than can be appreciated in a single viewing. The sheer Busby Berkeleyesque delirium of the show-stopping number "Be Our Guest" alone was enough to bring this viewer for more.

Snarkier commentators have taken strange issue with Emma Watson's singing as Belle. (Perhaps they were confusing her with Emma Stone in the overrated La La Land?) For the record, Watson sings extremely well, and whether her performance was digitally sweetened or auto-tuned is beside the point. Fantasy films are the essence of heightened reality, not cinema verité. While Paige O'Hara in 1991 had an enviable singing ability few others can be expected to rival—a big Broadway-caliber voice with an appealing quaver that can bring to mind the young Judy Garland—Belle's visual incarnation was, alas, standard-issue Disney princess. Watson brings a capable musicality to a fully fleshed-out Belle, and demonstrates that she, like her Harry Potter co-star Daniel Radcliffe, has effectively escaped the lost-soul curse and descent of so many child actors (itself a kind of ugly modern fairy tale), maturing into a gifted adult performer with considerable star power and an enviable future.

Dan Stevens (best known as Matthew Crawley, the doomed heir to Downton Abbey) is the new Beast. Like Robbie Benson in the cartoon version, the actor's voice is artificially downshifted to a bestial basso profundo, surfacing more normally for singing. Unlike Benson, Stevens has a natural to-the-manner born accent, and it serves the princely part well. We don't see him clearly until the end of the film; in the expository set-up he's a decadent, bewigged boy prince all but masked in elaborate Fellini Satyricon eye shadow. I remember once sitting in on an acting class during a visit by Vincent Price, who told the rapt students that the essential secret of film performance was learning to act with your eyes. Here, behind a digitally created and superbly executed visage, Stevens proves the point, since his eyes are the only things visible about him.

Luke Evans brings to heel the beastliest and most overdrawn character from the first picture, Belle's preeningly repellent suitor Gaston, but still plays the part with requisite gusto. A flurry of media attention was generated with the revelation that Gaston's adoring sidekick Le Fou (Josh Gad) could be officially considered gay. Not exactly a big win, since Le Fou's opportunities are likely pretty limited in an eighteenth-century French Catholic village that locked people up for things like sorcery. Disney, of course, has practically trademarked anachronistic tropes and quips, even though a trailblazing feminist like Belle, had she existed, might well have blazed in another way—literally en flambé, like Joan of Arc. But in the case of Le Fou, it's nice to see a nod to the unspoken nature of all those seemingly sexless best friends of hetero heroes and heroines that litter Hollywood history.

Kevin Kline is genuinely affecting as Belle's toymaker father, Maurice, whereas his cartoon prototype was barely more than a bargain-basement clone of Geppetto in Pinocchio. Among the indispensable animated household objects, the most successful character design by far is Lumiere, now a sinuously expressive candelabrum in place of the drab, unadorned wick holder from yesteryear. Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) and Ewan MacGregor (as Lumiere) hold their own against the previous vocal stylings of Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach. Ian McKellen gives a plummy reading of Cogsworth, the mantle clock; Audra MacDonald sings just as well as you might expect as Mme. de Garderobe, the clothes cupboard; and Stanley Tucci arrives as a new character/object, a dilapidated harpsichord named Maestro Candenza.

Condon's essential monster-kid roots are evident with yet another of his seemingly ongoing sly homages to James Whale, the biographical subject of Gods and Monsters, with one of the villagers lovingly done up as the spitting image of Una O'Connor, the resident flibbertigibbet of Whale's masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein (the film also has a cameo in Part One of Condon's Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn as the vampire Edward Cullen, played by Robert Pattinson, watches Bride unreel in a 1930s movie palace). Although I'm sure I was the only person in the theatre to get this particular joke, there is plenty else to enjoy. Everyone involved in this wonderful film, including the audience, seems to be having the time of their lives, so if you are in need of some escapism in these turbulent times (and who isn't?) then, by all means—be my guest.

 

*   *   *

 

Last year, when I reviewed the first season of Frank Spotnitz's ambitious adaptation of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Studios, streaming), there weren't alt-right activists in Washington D.C. giving Nazi salutes to Donald Trump. This year, I'm sorry to say, there were. Unless you've been living in an alternate universe yourself, you may already have taken note that Dick's parallel reality tale in which Germany won World War II has found an almost daily resonance with media reports and analysis of the disturbing drift toward strongman rule in the United States and Europe.

The second season of The Man, while clocking in the same ten episodes as Westworld, never feels slack, and delivers tighter and more coherent storytelling. Creator and show runner Frank Spotnitz maintains steadier control over a smaller stable of writers and directors than Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy over at HBO. Where the new Westworld leaves Crichton's original vision obscured in the stampede dust of a shiny new agenda, The Man continues to respect and deepen the theme and tone of Dick's source material. The most surprising turn is the unexpected reaction of Nazi commander John Smith (Rufus Sewell) to the demand that he euthanize his teenage son, the victim of an incurable genetic disease. The result is a Hitchcockian state of things where the audience is dragooned into identifying with someone it knows it shouldn't like. Smith's response (which I won't describe in detail) sets up a number of possible showdowns for the now-confirmed season three. I have no inside information, but my dramatic instincts tell me to keep an eye on Mrs. Smith (Chelah Horsdal), so far a beleaguered and sympathetic American Nazi socialite, to see how devoted she remains to her own son if her husband continues to fall inexorably on the wrong side of the Reich.

As for the parts of the story that still have a grounding in Dick's narrative, the substitution of an actual alternate universe portal (through which people and newsreel footage can be physically transported) for Dick's parallel-world novel-within-a-novel still works, even if the mechanics are still murky. The acting is still top-drawer. Alexa Davalos deploys striking screen charisma as the resistance fighter Juliana Crain, and I repeat my belief that there's a major star turn in her near future, perhaps even before The Man completes its life cycle. What could be more appropriate than its leading lady simultaneously inhabiting more than one dramatic dimension? As her diametrically different love interests, Rupert Evans and Luke Kleintank remain intense and believable, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa excels as the Japanese trade minister who temporarily avoids the threat of a Nazi atomic bomb by worm-holing his way into the ban-the-bomb movement of the late1960s. It may well be impossible for Spotnitz and company to maintain such a high level of achievement beyond a third season, but even if that's as far as it goes, The Man in the High Castle will have enjoyed a most worthy run.

Meanwhile, if, like me, you find current events too disturbingly in sync with Philip K. Dick's alternative reality, you may want to keep an eye peeled for a temporal/dimensional rabbit hole of your own.

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