Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Beauty and the Beast

Care of The Film Experience's 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot':

Beauty and the Beast contains one of the Great Moments in Disney - having already introduced us to a castle full of talking objects and one very expressive horse, the film cuts to a scene of Belle dodging the amorous advances of Gaston. Stepping outside to see if the coast is clear, she asks a nearby chicken, 'Is he gone?' Given all the anthropomorphism, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it might respond, or at least give her a reassuring cluck and start stitching her a dress, Snow White style. But no - it just looks at her. Of course it does - it's only a chicken. But look closely and something like bemusement crosses its face - is she trying to talk to me? Is she nuts? No wonder all the villagers think she's a bit weird.

Confessions up front - Beauty and the Beast strikes me as a little patchy, nothing like as dynamic or sustained as near-contemporaries like The Little Mermaid or Aladdin, and without the diabolically great villains of either (no harm to Gaston - he is indeed very good at expectorating, and that chest is something to conjure with - but is his the most arbitrary villain death in any Disney movie ever? Whoops, he slipped!). The character design sometimes seems off - Gaston's comedy sidekick may be my least favourite Disney character of all time, crassly put together visually, irritatingly voiced and devoid of decent comedy - and the CGI seems less well integrated now than it did at the time. But it is, for the most part, still fantastic entertainment - best exemplified by my 'best shot':

This moment comes from the kitchen sequence of the ‘Be Our Guest’ number. The castle background has dropped away, leaving the characters and the viewer in a pure, almost abstract fantasy-space in which, rules suspended (loose as they are already), anything can happen. With no regard for gravity, a troop of napkins in napkin rings sweep down from the air, ready for their Busby Berkely routine with Mrs. Potts. In a sequence as buoyant as the featured bubbles, we might almost be back Under the Sea in The Little Mermaid, as characters momentarily forget their relationship to three dimensional space. Once the song ‘Be Our Guest’ gets underway, the film largely leaves the strictures of narrative and the respectable alibi of the fairy-tale behind and indulges fully in what American animation in general and Disney in particular has often done best – anthropomorphism run amok, song and dance, silly jokes, and an immersion in a happy nonsense world. I’m as keen as anyone to resist the notion that animation is just for children, and like most people I’d take the hipper, more cynical, wisecracking WB shorts or the more rigorously-constructed fantasy worlds of Studio Ghibli, to name Disney’s two most obvious counterparts, to this kind of frappe of whimsy. But in unashamedly Disney moments like the one above, the film becomes as air-light as the characters, and the sheer pleasure of the movement, the colour, the feeling, can leave you with a buzz that carries you through the rest of the film, or the rest of the day.

If Mrs. Potts’s dance with the napkins is the highpoint of the film in terms of sheer joyous fun, then this shot of the Beast, reaching his momentous decision to let Belle leave as he contemplates the enchanted rose which is progressively sealing his fate, is the pinnacle of the film as both romantic melodrama and symbolically-charged fairy-tale. The Beast is obviously one of the great character designs in animation, and amazingly flexible in his expressiveness – that scowling, shaggy mug is used for horror, comedy, pathos and romantic charisma throughout the film. He's a great love-object, like a Bronte hero with the demonic passions worn on the outside - Heathcliff with his horns showing; Rochester in Furs.
In the version of the tale I heard and read as a child, the rose had a very different function; Beauty's father, leaving on a trip, asked his three daughters what gifts they would like on his return. Her two spoilt sisters asked for gowns and jewels - but Beauty wanted only a rose as a token of her father's affection. Of course, it was plucking this rose from the grounds of the castle that brought on the wrath of the Beast; and when the Beast tells him he will only release him if he exchanges the rose for the one who asked for it, the terrified father betrays his daughter and agrees. In that tale, the rose is an appropriately thorny symbol for the barbed nature of filial love, and the transaction between father and groom, betraying a daughter's tender affection, that might have rung a bell for many unfortunate marriageable young women in Ye Olde Europe.
None of that patriarchal Stockholm Syndrome for a nineties heroine like Belle - in the film, the rose, pink as a heart and under glass, is an obvious metaphor for the Beast's own closed-off capacity for feeling and tenderness, so his great romantic epiphany - if you love her, put her needs before your own - must come standing over it, cupping it like a crystal ball, as mysterious to him as his own awakening emotional state.

But I couldn't help noticing on this viewing that the Beast is not the only castle inhabitant struggling with a dark side. During the battle between the villagers and the enchanted folk, there's a lot of violence, most of it as casual and negligible as most Disney violence. But take a look at the image above; Mrs. Potts and her brood of tea-cups have just poured scalding hot tea over some of the invaders. The clouds of steam linger, suggesting to this perturbed viewer just how agonising the injuries sustained by the villagers must be. Worse, though, is that a look of sadistic glee passing over Mrs. Potts's usually beneficent face? Is she relishing the pain of her enemies, or simply her own discovered capacity for bringing the hurt? Those Noirish shadows and camera angle aren't suggesting any comforting answers to me. Still, she is voiced by Angela Lansbury, and for someone fondly thought of as a lovable old lady, she sure brings some dark baggage with her - mistress-tormenting, incestuously-plotting, wolfy-tale-telling, meat-pie making baggage. Perhaps it's no surprise that Mrs. Potts's fine china exterior might hide a particularly dark brew.