It’s a pleasure to report that Beauty and the Beast and Kong: Skull Island are both tremendously entertaining revamps of two beloved classic tales.
Beauty and the Beast, of course, is a “live-action” retelling of Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, with a score by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman that incorporates a few new songs (by Menken and Tim Rice, including a Beast solo) to an already memorable soundtrack. Directed by Bill Condon, the adaptation by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos retains the storyline’s basic trajectory, while adding a few fillips of its own—notably in the CGI now utilized or the Prince/Beast and his “staff,” as well as some plot embellishments The Beast (Dan Stevens) is now quite erudite, a former vain prince who is the victim of a curse placed on him by a spurned enchantress (not content turning him into a Beast, she has also turned his household servants into objects). Belle (Emma Watson) is now a headstrong, intelligent tutor who feels like a misfit in her village. She still has an adoring father in Maurice (Kevin Kline) and an arrogant, ardent admirer in Gaston (Luke Evans). Gaston still has a very adoring servant in LeFou (Josh Gad--and by the by, criticizing the decision to intensify LeFou’s love for gaston seems like a strange quibble in a film which depicts the growing love of a lady for a Beast--but I digress). After Maurice is imprisoned by the Beast (he has offended the Beast by taking a rose), Belle takes his place at the Beast’s remote palace.
However, this spirited Belle perpetually has escape on the mind, much to the dismay of the Beast’s still-loyal servants, including Lumiere, the candelabra (Ewan McGregor); Mrs. Potts, the teapot (Emma Thompson); Cogsworth, the clock (Ian McKellen); and Madame de Garderobe, the wise wardrobe (Audra McDonald). After the servants temporarily win Belle over (in the still rousing “Be Our Guest,” delivered with panache by McGregor and company), they go to work convincing the Beast that she is indeed “the one” who could break the spell. After a misbegotten try for freedom lands her in the middle of deadly wolves, both the Beast and Beauty take turns saving each other; needless to say, their mutual affection grows as the Beast comes to the realization that he must release Belle in order for there to be any chance at all of his love being reciprocated, even though it might mean the end for him. Meanwhile, back in the village, a jealous, vengeful, and crazed Gaston convinces the villagers to storm the castle (shades of Frankenstein)…can true love survive?
While all of this sounds quite hokey (I’m sure it reads that way), this Beauty and the Beast is a triumph of exuberance, charm, humor, and feeling, with its still lilting score beautifully performed by a peerless cast whose humanity is felt through the beasts and objects they portray (and yes, Emma Watson is not the equal of say, the divine Audra McDonald and Emma Thompson, but she acquits herself well in the singing department). The little additions to the story (or shall I say, backstory) bring a little more depth without detracting from the plot’s forward motion (and grant more screen time and songs to Kevin Kline, who is both amusing and touching as the eccentric but loving Maurice). Visually, it’s also a delight (I saw it in 3D, and for once, I wasn’t sorry), and when you combine all the elements, including its wit and ever-present heart, you’ll have a pretty joyful experience with this vibrant Beauty and the Beast.
King Kong is back with a vengeance in the exciting, taut, mordant, and occasionally shocking Kong: Skull Island. It’s 1973, and an expedition to this remote Skull Island, led by a mercenary (Tom Hiddleston) and a U.S, government agent (John Goodman), accompanied by a squad of Vietnam vets (commanded by Samuel L. Jackson), and a photographer (Brie Larson, the beauty in this version) makes Kong pretty angry and a tad vindictive. And you might think so too, till you realize his survival, as well as the precarious peace on the island, has been threatened by this invasion of outsiders. After Kong’s reprisal leaves the interlopers stranded on different parts of the island (in diminished numbers), the rest of the film is akin to a combination of war film, disaster movie and battle against some hostile elements, akin to The Lost Patrol crossed with Alien and Transformers, with a soupcon of Apocalypse Now.
While there isn’t much depth to most of the characters, capable actors like Hiddleston, Larson, Jackson and Goodman manage to stand up pretty well in the face of scene-stealing, malevolent creatures. Kong, with the aid of some CGI handiwork and a motion-capture performance by Terry Notary manages to be both murderous (when provoked) and anguished. However the real heart of the film lies not in the Beauty and the Beast scenario between Larson and Kong, but the performance of John C. Reilly as a grizzled World War II vet (who resembles Santa Claus). Stuck in time though he may be (the character is a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan who has never heard of the Cold War), Reilly’s wise veteran might just hold the key to survival and escape—more importantly he is the one you’ll wind up rooting for (next to Kong, of course).