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New “Beauty and the Beast”dazzles despite having “too many notes”

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As expected, it wouldn’t be too long until Disney did a live-action retelling of their 1991 animated classic. There are factors as to why they would do such a thing considering its one of their popular titles. It was well-loved, the songs are still hummed and it got a Best Picture nomination. It’s never easy to fix something that isn’t broken and that was the case here. I’m pleased to say there are plenty of things that keep it far removed from the original (even going as far to give nods to the 1946 Jean Cocteau version). At the same time, I couldn’t help but question why go the great lengths to recapture the magic and spirit when all the time could have been used for a more unique variation.

In no way I am saying this is a horrible version. Dare I say, far from it. There are things I liked about Bill Condon’s live-action take, scenes and images I will take away from as a moment of beauty and will have the appreciation to watch it again when the feeling is there. There is effort in this one, everyone is trying their best and having fun with their roles. I am glad to say there are no fart jokes or dumbing down of the source. But part of me wonders why there is something more to the 1991 animated film in comparison to this one.

For the most part, the performances are fine. Emma Watson is no Paige O’Hara, but she tires to give the character Belle something. She does stand by her decisions like her reason to trade her freedom for her father’s imprisonment (Kevin Kline) and shows she is more than a girl with basic curiosity. A backstory is tossed on where she wishes to know the mystery of her mother and to be fair, the execution is fine. Yet, what kills it for me is her singing abilities. There are moments when I couldn’t help but compare her voice to the others around her during the opening number. I don’t know if it was the sound system, but something felt flat or “auto-tuned” when she was in the numbers. There was an electronic sense to her voice which made me wonder if any post-production work as done on her vocals. Her interactions with the other characters are fine and there’s even some nice scenes between her and Maurice that I found touching. But when your lead character can’t belt a tune that makes you feel for the character’s dreams and feelings, your just left with a rather mediocre performance lost in a sea of people who are trying.

Take Dan Stevens who is gives as much heart and soul to the Beast. While he’s no Robbie Benson or Jean Marais, Stevens’ portrayal does show what years of isolation and a heartless nature can do. Despite the beckoning of his servants, he sees no sign of hope and knows the curse is forever even if he tries. There’s a scene when he is looking at Belle from the magic mirror and feels there is no connection. As another petal from the rose falls, parts of the castle crumble as we feel a part of his heart did. Even surprisingly Stevens can carry an emotional tune as his solo before the climax speaks the heartfelt and tragedy of the character. While I wish some makeup work was involved, the CGI at times isn’t too bad on this furry Scrooge.

Other standout performances include Luke Evans as the cocky Gaston, who will go to the ends of the Earth in order to get what he wants. Evans really chews out the scenery as this famed Disney villain with fancy footwork and an overly conceited manner that was part of the original character. You can tell he’s having a lot of fun as much as Josh Gad is as LeFou. I admit, I was worried for a bit as having the lovable snowman as a comedic sidekick, but I’m pleased to say Gad didn’t disappoint. And for those worried about his “big moment,” I assure mommies and daddies everywhere that its not big to the story and played in a subtle manner. In short, there’s a movie with a girl falling for an enchanted prince and a candlestick doing a big Broadway number with flying dishes. I think you will be fine.

I’d go down the list and check off who did a great job, but I can say mostly everyone did their part (aside from Watson but she tires.) Kevin Kline is sweet as Maurice hinting a tragic moment in life, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen have humorous chemistry and so forth. But when it comes to altering the story, that’s a different case. There are moments when this “Beast” adds elements from the original fairy tale (Maurice is held prisoner by the Beast for getting a rose from his garden as requested by Belle) and again some subtle nods to other versions like candelabra hands from the Cocteau version.

But when new story beats appear to explain why the Beast got so cold hearten, Belle wondering about this hidden family secret or have Gaston be a famed war captain, this is when it starts to drag. The focus starts to become more on these new additions and less how the story is being told well. Dare I say, these moments do distract but then you have little details used to fill in some plot holes like what would be left of the castle and its inhabitants if the Beast fails to lift the curse. It’s a double edge sword and some of works. But then you have small additions that can change the nature of a scene. Without giving too much away, let’s just say during a big fight scene near the end, a gun is involved. No blade, no fists and no impalement. Just a bunch of bullets and nothing more. There is no sense of intensity as the action in question is by something mechanical as opposed to a blade. It left me wishing it was more intense, but Disney has banned impalement for a while so why bother changing it something more deadly? Nitpick aside, it makes an intense moment less intense.

The songs themselves are fine as Alan Menken returns with old numbers and some new material by Menken and Tim Rice of “Lion King” fame. Some of the songs like “Gaston” and the showstopper “Be Our Guest” contain some new lyrics that don’t diminish why we love these songs. But the new dance breaks and added beats nearly kill the enjoyment of the rhythm. “Be Our Guest” goes from a showstopper into too long of a showstopper as dinner plates sail in the air like kites and Lumiere stops to pay an homage for “Singin’ In the Rain.” The new numbers try to add some new form of substance and they work for the most part. Belle’s father has a nice number at the beginning, the Beast has a powerful song as he scales the lonesome towers of his castle and a sequence with the servants pondering of their fate is interesting. Even if they don’t overpower the others, they are a nice addition for the most part.

I can’t really say I hated this “Beast.” There are moments I did enjoy and some that did get me teary. Will it be memorable as the original? Probably not. This is just part of trend Disney is doing because they want to see what sticks and what doesn’t. While I’m against the idea of doing a live-action take of this one, it was nice to see an attempt. It delivered when it needed to despite having a few flaws. Had the animated movie not exist, it would be difficult to picture if this would stand on its own better. In a sense, maybe but the flaws in story and some performances would still be there. In retrospect, this is very much how I feel about Ron Howard’s “Grinch.” While nowhere near as powerful as the original, it was a good try.

Rental Corner: “Pussycats” fun but lack much bite

It could have been worse...

It could have been worse…

“Josie and the Pussycats” are a popular rock group that originated from the Archie comic’s hometown Riverdale but people probably remember them best for the Hannah Barbera TV show. I do recall seeing some episodes as a kid but my memory is very faint. I do recall the significance of the band was how they were dressed up like cats complete with ears and tails. Joining them at the aid were two managers that were shifty and acted more villainous than heroic which struck me odd as a kid. What I do remember is seeing promos for the 2001 live action film and thinking how could they take another childhood property and make it for the adults. Now that I’m older and finally got around to seeing it, I wonder more why this wasn’t given the wider appeal for kids and adults because its light nature could be perfect for family viewing. And yet, fun as it can be, it has problems.

Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid and Rosario Dawson do a great job bringing the band to life as the Pussycats are depicted as less of a 1970’s disco act and more of a modern rock band with a tablespoon of punk. At times, they can be be fun to watch with how their different personalities play off of each other (with the exception of Tara’s bubbly performance of Melody getting split laughs and groans) but it teeters too close to a Spice Girls parody and feeling like a Spice Girls clone at the same time. Its the standard group with different character traits that play off each other but its handled fine.

Alan Cumming plays a sneaky promoter named Wyatt Frame from MegaRecords who recruits the band in becoming their manager in hopes of getting a big hit for the company after his last band goes down in a plane. But as it turns out, there’s a great conspiracy at MegaRecords as its owner (Parker Prosy) wants to use music to send out subliminal messages so listeners (mostly teenagers, obviously) to manipulate their spending habits and lifestyle ranging from what coffee they should drink to even the style of clothing. Even Josie and the gang gets subjected to the brainwash as their band becomes number one within a week and slowly the group starts to wonder just what is behind those platinum selling CDs that are being produced.

In some ways, this is a good concept on satirizing big corporations and their motive on what they sell to young minds advertises their identity, but it doesn’t feel completely there. Some scenes lead to great comedic moments with teens rushing for the next “big thing” they should have and moments of demonstration do get a decent chuckle. But what contradicts it has to be the never ending line of product placement that is every single frame of the movie from beginning to end. This helps it as well as harming it to the point midway we either get the message and wish it would stop or just cut to the point and stop littering the screen with Coca Cola products or the logo for Target.

I fell like this is a much lighter take on John Carpenter’s They Live where aliens are trying to convert humans into consuming machines with billboards that read “Consume and Marry” or money that says “This is your god.” But the tone of the film is more incline with The Incredible Shrinking Woman and Wayne’s World (actually more Wayne’s World) and they didn’t resort to the point where the aspect of product placement was literally hitting you over the head with it. It all builds up to a big joke in the end but it doesn’t feel like a satisfying payoff. The acting complements this with Alan Cumming going hilariously over the top when needed while everyone is aware of the ridiculous nature of the movie without sending too many “winks to the camera.”

In fact, the whole tone of “Josie and the Pussycats” is rather cartoony and over the top to the point it can’t be taken seriously. Its a tour de force comedy that is trying out satire rather than throwing something at the screen and seeing it sticks. Most of the satire does work but some of the jokes don’t get too many laughs. As said, the character Melody is so bubble-headed that you wonder if she was experimented on by scientists before being let out into the real wold with her absent minded personality. Even the villain’s motive is so stupid that you can’t help but laugh at how so much effort went into an evil plan for such a silly reason.

I don’t think this movie is that bad as many make it out to be but it falls flat of being anything perfect. At times it can be smart and clever and at times it feels more like a Wayne’s World clone with the idea of an underground talent being manipulated for sponsorship or in this case controlling the mind of America’s youth and pop culture. But there really isn’t that much risk going on here. When something bad happened in the universe of Wayne’s World, it felt like the whole world was in peril. In the universe of Josie and the Pussycats (at least the movie), if something bad happens, there really is no feel of endangering our characters because when someone gets hurt, they come back in a cast or with minor scratches. Again, I know “Josie” is meant to be light-hearted but with a movie taking on themes of subliminal messages and consumerism, you wish it took more risks. But as it stands, its a harmless flick I’m sure you’ll be safe watching. I can’t remember any bad morals it was saying or anything completely offensive about it (well, maybe the Valerie character getting the shaft at times which is questionable). Its just goofy fun that I’m sure won’t rot your brain. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to pre-order Guardians of the Galaxy and the new Turtles movie while purchasing a furry suit and hoping my grocery store has plenty of Cherry 7 Up in stock….wait, what?