Saturday, March 25, 2017

Emma Watson and the Evil Disney Hegemony: 5 notes on Beauty and the Beast

1) In a sense, Bill Condon's live-action Beauty and the Beast is Emma Watson's debutante ball, her first major starring role (aside from the beast, and he's diminished by the computer-generated imagery). The French Revolution-era fairy tale also makes Beauty and the Beast Watson's first historical drama. After her work as Hermione Granger, she tended to choose ensemble roles in movies like Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring (2013), where her character Nicki stood out for her crass American consumerism and vanity, i.e. the opposite of Hermione. Watson didn't seem to fully know it at first, but one could claim that she became the break-out star of the extremely profitable Harry Potter movies in part because J. K. Rowling marginalized Hermione as Potter's sidekick, and therefore she became the most compelling character compared to Ron Weasley (the nondescript redhead played by Rupert Grint) and the rather dutiful Harry. Meanwhile, Daniel Radcliffe has since distinguished himself in the London play production of Equus by gouging out the eyes of horses in the nude, or, more recently, by playing a flatulent corpse in Swiss Army Man (2016), a movie which I have deliberately refused to see (in part because I cannot abide Paul Dano). In other words, of the three original leads of the Harry Potter juggernaut, Emma Watson has come out of it as arguably the most credible star.

2) As we get introduced to Belle in her decidedly provincial French town (Gascony), I remembered that the Disney cartoon version of Belle stood out more for her large eyes. I had heard that Watson was the original star in mind for the makers of La La Land, and if one thinks about it, Emma Stone has the freakish anime look that would suit Belle. As Belle walks along singing "There must be more than this provincial life!", the villagers call her odd in part because "her looks have got no parallel" even though she's always got "her nose stuck in a book." Now, when the villagers sang this in the 1991 cartoon version, it was obviously true. In the live-action version, Emma Watson does not exactly stand out in the same way. Director Bill Condon keeps finding ways to emphasize her, at one point making Belle the dominant contrast as the rest of the village freezes as only she walks by, but Watson still strikes me as the kind of character actress who can blend into a movie (such as, say, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)) rather than command the focus of a scene as Belle. In short, one thinks of Emma Watson's recent work for the United Nations, and how she's perhaps too smart by half to be in a Cinderella-esque Disney extravaganza at all.

3) But perhaps, that's the main clever thing of Bill Condon's version. We've been waiting for a Watson vehicle that places her front and center of a very expensive production, and now that she's in one, she doesn't quite fit, and that tension makes the usual bland Disney pap somehow more effective, and more striking, even with its magic resurrections, its funny CGI sidekicks, its syrupy songs, and its ballroom dancing in the iconic yellow dress with a quickly tamed CGI teddy beast. Belle and Watson do share an extreme high regard for reading and books, but in the limited world of Beauty and the Beast, Belle can only go back and forth between provincial Gascony and an enchanted castle of pre-revolutionary 18th century France (with only a brief sojourn in an attic in Paris). Emma Watson, in dramatic postmodern contrast, has a heck of a lot of more feminist options, including the one of starring in the live-action version of her favorite Disney movie.

4) One critic wrote that she has doubts about Watson choosing this Disney vehicle. Doesn't it undermine her intelligence, her edgy roles chosen since the grim dark Potter world mercifully ended in 2011? Isn't Watson selling out to endless Disney hegemonic brainwashing merchandising, its savvy corrupt multi-media synergized machinations that gets otherwise intelligent adults to visit Disney World once or twice a year at obscene expense just so they can feel that Proustian youthful bit of manufactured Disney magic? In the same vein, I still sort of like a McDonald's Big Mac, but I know that's due to skillful TV marketing, advertising of the McBurglar and the smiling red-footed Ronald affecting my innocent brain many years ago before I had any way to resist it. So do so many brainwashed Americans pour into Disney World every year as they pay somewhere around $14,000 to fly in, stay in a hotel on the property for a few days, and see the cartoon characters cavort under the prefab magic castle under fireworks every night with their screaming toddlers, everyone always standing in long lines as they seek to that reclaim elusive Disney joy, that "It's a Small World After All" cheerful, smiling, always smiling, they-had-better-smile-or-else, heavily copyrighted-cartoon-ride of a lifetime.

5) When I think of all that highly evil, highly profitable thought control (not to mention the absolute horrors of the Pirates of the Caribbean series that still endures--a purely redundant nightmare), I wonder how I could like the new Beauty and the Beast at all?  Yet, I did, perhaps in part due to glibly cheesy half-baked memories of a cartoon that I saw long ago, and that's what so annoying about it.

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