These films shine bright, alright, but not like diamonds.
We are almost there! Finally! The end is so close I can practically taste it! I have been writing for a straight fortnight, currently totalling 36,741 words, I haven’t been outside of my house for pleasure in over 3 weeks, nor have I gone to bed before 1am for most of that, and I am losing my FUCKING MIND! But on the other side of these final 5,000+ words lie salvation, so LET’S! GET! THIS! OVER WITH! Yesterday, we covered the first 5 entries (and other assorted amenities) to my Bottom 10 Films of 2017, and today we finish it. So, for the final time, GO ON AND SAVE YOURSELF, TAKE IT OUT ON ME!
There may be spoilers, proceed with caution.
05] The Emoji Movie
Dir: Tony Leondis
Star: T.J. Miller, James Corden, Anna Faris
An easy target? One that quite literally everybody has been raking over the coals since the very second that it was announced, and was obviously never going to be any good? “Callum, I thought that you weren’t going to go after such blatant fish-in-a-barrel?” Well, folks, I didn’t want to, but The Emoji Movie really does live down to the incredibly low expectations that its mere announcement set back in those brighter-looking halcyon days of early-2016. Sometimes, it even tries to find brand new lows to sink to, like having James Corden sing a parody of “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen,” an African-American spiritual hymn that originated during the days of slavery, called “Nobody Knows the Touch-Screens I’ve Seen,” or the time where Jailbreak yells out “MEN ARE ALWAYS GETTING CREDIT FOR WOMEN’S WORDS AND I’M SICK OF IT” yet never gets touched upon again, like it’s here purely in the hopes that this kind blatant feminist pandering will make critics like myself somehow give the entire film a passing grade, or the fact that I am fairly certain, based on the compelling evidence presented by The Emoji Movie, that nobody involved with it even understands how smartphones work.
The Emoji Movie is an exercise in irritation, 86 minutes of barely-thought-through soulless corporate homogeny. Don’t try turning watching this film into a drinking game based on how many plot points and ideas The Emoji Movie nicks from better animated movies, not even for a joke, because you will die of liver failure before it’s even half done. Inside Out, Wreck-It Ralph, Toy Story, The LEGO Movie; imagine the worst possible outcome of every single one of those, smush them together indiscriminately, and then stop the concoction every 5 minutes to shill whichever apps were at their most popular 3 or 4 years ago, and you have The Emoji Movie. The complete blatant ineptitude of said shilling – at one point, our cast hide out from security bots aiming to delete them by diving into the Dropbox, whereupon Jailbreak says “they can’t get into this app, it is totally secure” – would honestly be pretty funny were the film not dripping with active disdain for any viewer watching it, and especially its target audience. The results betray a creative team desperately trying to get on-side with the youth of today whilst also openly hating every second of their continued existence; cursing the sky trying to figure out how it has come to this, and why teenagers are all so awful. “Words aren’t cool,” sincerely bleats one of the film’s non-characterised humans, whilst Gene mocks the audience’s supposedly-insufficient attention spans in his opening voice over.
A film at war with itself, The Emoji Movie also wants to be about stuff, rather than just free advertising to whichever companies were most willing to subsidise the film’s costs. Director Tony Leondis – who is the one who pitched the film to Sony in the first place, and even has screenwriting credits – would like for you to think of Gene’s inability suppress his feelings, and the fact that he can make more than one expression in a world that frowns upon such a thing, as a metaphor for gay people coming to terms with their homosexuality… just maybe don’t pay attention to the fact that his world is nearly completely destroyed because of this fact, or that he got this trait from his dad, or the fact that Gene is in love with Jailbreak, or the fact that he can only commit to his “meh” persona once Jailbreak rejects him, because a woman is honour-bound to reciprocate a man’s affections once they have been declared otherwise THEY’RE the unreasonable harlot… The Emoji Movie is so haphazard and devoid of a coherent guiding hand that everything about it falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. It doesn’t matter if anybody involved was trying to make something with artistic merit out of their assignment. They’ve made a hollow and empty monument to late Capitalism all the same.
Animation deserves better. Yes, you likely knew this was coming given whose words you’re reading, but it doesn’t make the sentiment any less warranted. 2017, whilst phenomenal in almost every other aspect of moviemaking, was a rather down year for Animation as a medium of theatrical storytelling. After the heights of 2016, any year would have been a relative downturn, but the year nonetheless saw a lot of films that shared The Emoji Movie’s lack of interest in doing anything other than lining their studios’ pockets. Cars 3, Despicable Me 3, and My Little Pony: The Movie span wheels, LEGO Ninjago had the best joke of the entire year but stuck too close to a slowly dwindling formula, and cheap foreign shovelware abounded. But even with that deflating state, the year’s best animated features (setting aside the anomaly of My Life as a Courgette) still managed to rise above what on-paper sounds like nakedly cynical cash-grabs. LEGO Batman delivered timely commentary on the state of Batman as a brand and geek “fandom” as a whole, whilst The Boss Baby is actually a searing indictment of Capitalism as depicted through gonzo metaphorical storytelling and luscious visual animation. And if anybody still wants to try and falsely label either film as nothing more than profit-maximisers, then they can be shut down by merely pointing to both films’ strong characters, whip-sharp comedy, and sincere hearts, because tangible effort went into the making of them both.
That’s all The Emoji Movie had to do at least minimise the damage it has done to Sony Pictures Animation and the medium of Feature-Length Animation as a whole: put in some tangible goddamn effort. Instead, no matter what anyone may try and claim, it says absolutely nothing, not even “buy more apps!” At one point, the gang discover a deleted love letter their human had written to his crush that is entirely made up of the lyrics to “Diamonds” by Rihanna. It could either be a funny joke about the vapid profundity of teenagers, or it could be a failed and cheesy attempt to inject some legitimate heart into our underwritten human characters. It is instead lingered on for a moment, and then passes without any comment.
04] Ghost in the Shell
Dir: Rupert Sanders
Star: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano
It is weird that Ghost in the Shell became a cultural touchstone, right? I mean, I get how – releasing right at the time that the Anime Boom was going into full-effect in America, being all serious and philosophical and critically-acclaimed, and then having its imagery, visual aesthetics, and themes jacked wholesale by two of the most visionary zeitgeist-capturing filmmakers of the late-20th Century will make you a landmark cultural touchstone – but I’m still shocked as to why. I got the chance to rewatch that 1995 anime in a cinema early on in 2017, and was reminded of its brilliance, but also reminded of its incredible difficultness. This is a very slow, insular, intellectual mood piece that gleefully throws itself headfirst into very abstract concepts and places an inordinate amount of trust in the viewer to be able to keep up. I’m not sure that I even fully understand it, and I’ve been regularly viewing it since I was 17! I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing that Ghost in the Shell became one of the pillars of Anime and Manga in the West, not in the slightest, I’m just acknowledging that it’s kind of weird.
As a result, I guess I have no right to be surprised that Rupert Sanders’ multiple-decades-too-late Live-Action American remake of Ghost in the Shell strips out everything but the barest essentials required to still call the movie Ghost in the Shell, and fills in that missing space with the Generic Late 90s Action-Thriller, Sub-Division D: Anime Wannabe template. Still didn’t stop me from exiting the cinema literally shaking in rage, though! Ghost in the Shell makes such a meal of its source material – which is an awkward mishmash of the original Manga, visual references and setpieces used in the classic Anime, disparate strands from both seasons of Stand Alone Complex, and the 2014 remake of Robocop of all goddamn things – that you could mass-produce the results and sell them as dog food.
Narratively, it is painfully predictable and dramatically-inert, with dialogue so laughably blunt and cheesy one would think GitS was an 80s American B-Movie, and characters almost completely lacking in defined or memorable personalities. Thematically, themes of transhumanism, dissociative identities, the increasing encroachment of technology upon our everyday lives, and what it means to have a soul have all been dumbed to near-non-existent levels in favour of “Corporations are bad and scary, OOGIE-BOOGEDY-BOO!” so cliched and simplistic that it makes a pot-smoking teenager that’s just discovered the concept of Communism seem like an intellectual genius on par with Socrates. Visually, not only is it in the hands of Rupert Sanders, one of the dreariest directors to ever be given 9-figure budgets, all it does is blandly recreate the exact kind of visual aesthetics that almost every other sci-fi director, good and bad, has stripped bare for their own works throughout the past 20 years. Little of it coheres, either, once again continuing to perpetrate Western science-fiction’s long-standing tradition of raiding Asian iconography for their technological dystopias without either making those worlds feel alive or including well-drawn Asian characters as the driving force of those stories.
Which brings us to the twist. That one. That both the Major and Kuze, despite being played by White actors, are really Japanese natives that were kidnapped by the evil corporation at the centre of everything to be used as experiments in the field of cyborg weaponry – their Asian identities being erased and their minds and memories being transferred into White bodies, which have been deliberately designed to be perfect in every way. It’s a twist that practically presents a solution to those (completely justified) claims of whitewashing that dogged the film’s production on a gift-wrapped silver platter, opening the door for long-overdue commentary on Asian cultural erasure in Western media, and how Western media’s decades of prizing Whiteness as the perfect ideal can negatively affect Eastern perceptions of their own culture and representation. And do you know what this Ghost in the Shell does with it? Nothing. Nothing at all, because to dwell on the philosophical ramifications of this twist would be to take valuable time away from The Big Expensive Third Act Action Climax, so, rather than think about it, the film tells us to take this shockingly nonsensical and tone-deaf twist at face-value, to find Scarlett Johansson and Michael Pitt calling each other “Motoko” and “Hideo” with glumly straight-goddamn-faces powerful storytelling instead of the dictionary illustration of White Privilege. It displays the reveal, assuming you could still salvage it (not my place to say athough Hollywood Reporter held an excellently insightful roundtable that you should read), to be nothing but a desperately inept attempt to save face.
And yet, I am kind of thankful for the existence of Ghost in the Shell. I mean, rarely have I been presented with the perfect metaphor for how Hollywood studios typically handle remakes of Asian media: yanking them out of their specific cultural environments, erasing their cultural identities and forcing them into an idealised White body under the guise of a ‘post-racial’ society, and then parading around that new version as if it is inherently desirable because now it stars faces you sort of recognise and you don’t have to read subtitles anymore. Still, I won’t forget leaving the cinema in seething expletive-filled rage, since this bastardisation had the gall to end on a recreation of one of the franchise’s most iconic shots whilst Kenji Kawai’s legendary theme plays, as if everybody involved seriously thought they’d done Ghost in the Shell proud.
Dir: David Ayer
Star: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Lucy Fry
Remember when you were, I dunno, let’s say 5? Remember how you’d come up with these grand and epic stories to amuse yourself and your friends as you were playing? They’d be born from simple ideas based around stories you read or saw, mixed in with your own limited imagination, and they’d completely fall apart under the thinnest of scrutiny because they weren’t that deep? But that was ok because you were a child just amusing yourself for a short while over an idea that you found cool, not a collection of fully-grown adults being paid millions of dollars to spend several years of their lives dedicating themselves to bringing this vision to life, and also believing that their idea is filled with cutting and relevant social commentary about race relations and class warfare? If you’d made Bright at age 5… well, you wouldn’t have made Bright, because you were a child and would have had to deal with homework or something like that. Instead, Bright was conceived by the world’s most popular streaming service, a 32-year-old wünderkid screenwriting prodigy (according to himself because 80% of his work says otherwise), and a 49-year-old fitfully-talented writer-director. One of them once famously claimed that Bright could be their Star Wars.
Bright is so fundamentally ill-conceived, so completely misjudged on a foundational level, and so completely bereft of any thought put into its premise beyond the one that inspired the initial elevator pitch that I was oftentimes agog at the car-crash display that ran in front of me for almost 2 ceaseless hours. The casual, impersonal ugliness that characterised David Ayer’s last film returns in full force attached to what I think are attempts at social commentary that don’t seem to equate to or mean anything – “fairy lives don’t matter today” has been rightly circulated for mockery by those in the Film Criticism sphere, but what’s most mindboggling about it is how completely meaningless that line is even within the context of the film. Bright does largely avoid vomiting backstory into the viewer’s face (except for the laughably terrible times where it does), which is something I would like to applaud except that it means that the film’s world doesn’t make any sense when thought about for longer than a few seconds. “Our world as it is today, except that fantasy creatures are also there standing in for the Lower Classes and 1%” is all good as a starting point, except that no further thought or development of that idea came about, with everyone instead racing straight into filming like they’d just struck oil.
Characters all have one trait and one trait only, that trait being “asshole.” Some are “racist asshole,” others are “murderous asshole,” and others still are “asshole but also that one Mexican stereotype David Ayer has a concerning obsession with,” but all of them are assholes. Except for Nick, he’s “condescending stand-in for well-meaning Black people,” although in Bright’s universe, the oppressed minorities that Orcs are stand-ins for brought their subjugation upon themselves by being very evil thousands of years back – except that they can’t be stand-ins for oppressed minorities, because human institutional racism is still a thing, and Will Smith is our protagonist, and… Look, the social commentary and metaphors make absolutely no sense other than basic “maybe don’t be an arsehole” because no aspect of this world has been thought through beyond the most simplistic of outlines. It’s all vague, alluded-to generalised sentiments with no weight or thematic cohesion. Orcs are just “oppressed people.” Elves are just “rich” and in some cases “evil.” Wands are “like a nuclear bomb,” except that they can only be touched by certain “Brights,” who are even referred to as “chosen,” which make them little more than MacGuffins. And our villains want to resurrect something from the past that we don’t see or know anything about to destroy the world. Children’s colouring books display more developed storytelling than Bright.
And I fear that this was all intentional. Bright is the kind of movie that shatters into a thousand pieces if one so much as blinks in its general direction, yet it is what Netflix has chosen to go with for its first blockbuster movie – this cost $90 million, which is hilarious to me given just how cheap the film looks, and the fact that the plot keeps contriving excuses to return to the same 3 locations. It has enough action setpieces (really terribly shot and lit setpieces) and recognisable movie stars and the kind of high-concept premise that blockbusters typically have, and yet it is completely devoid of even basic substance. It is a film that fails to cohere on a moment-to-moment level and is entirely disinterested in trying to gain or keep a hold of the attention of any viewer not slumped down in a half-hungover daze on their sofa just wanting something to act as background noise whilst they do menial tasks. The film just trundles along, fulfilling the basic obligations required of a narrative-based movie, and you’re expected to just groove on the appearance of moving pictures and sound. Or maybe not even that; you’re equally expected to minimise the tab it’s playing in and surf the web for 2 hours. Every now and again, an explosion will occur, or one of the film’s terrible songs will play, or Will Smith will say something that approximates a witty quip if you just ignore the words involved in it, and you’ll alt-tab back over for a few seconds to see what’s occurring, before alt-tabbing back to Facebook Messenger or what have you. It even ends with an interminably long scene in which our leads recap the entire plot of the film we just saw, in detail, for the benefit of those who weren’t paying attention.
Back in the day, we would have called a film like Bright a career-killer. It would have been released into cinemas, savaged by critics, mostly ignored by audiences that would have had to pay direct money to watch it, and every last person involved with it would have been burying their careers in a shared grave come Monday morning. Today, though, Bright gets a sequel greenlit two days before the film was even released, and Ayer, Smith, and Edgerton are all locked in to return 2 weeks later. Maybe Netflix really are trying to kill movies after all.
02] Alien: Covenant
Dir: Ridley Scott
Star: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride
Once upon a time, Ridley Scott understood the Alien. Back in 1979, he made the decision in post-production to cut a very-expensive, special-effects-laden scene from Alien where Ripley stumbles upon the Alien’s nest, with Dallas and Brett cocooned inside slowly turning into new Aliens, begging Ripley to incinerate them. Scott rationalised this decision due to it coming slap-bang in the middle of Ripley’s tense back-and-forth cat-and-mouse escape from the Nostromo during its self-destruct sequence, ruining the tension and pacing. He is right, but I think he also understood the other reason why the scene had to go: it told too much. The Alien is so absolutely, pants-shittingly, nightmare-hauntingly terrifying primarily because it feels like a nightmare made flesh – a given since its design came from H.R. Geiger’s own nightmares, but point stands. We learn just enough about it to give it dimension and feel like a real creature, but not so much that all of its mystique disappears. Imagine how absolutely terrifying it must have been for our ancestors to first meet a tiger thousands of years ago, now fast-forward to a time where we know almost everything there is to know about tigers. It’s kind of like that.
The cocoon sequence is technically impressive and terrifying separated from the context of the Alien and the rest of Alien. In context, however, it’s just a little too much detail about the life cycle of the Alien, and a little too direct for a film that knows the subconscious is a far more effective conjurer of wicked fates than the conscious mind ever could. In Alien, we learn just enough about the Alien to make it feel real and then our subconscious fills in the rest, spurred on the carefully-chosen facts we do know, what parts of the creature’s anatomy we can make out, and the inhuman physicality that Bolaji Badejo brought to the creature’s movements and body language. You know why the escape pod scare always got me despite my having seen the film at least 70 times over 13 years? It’s because the moment where you are presented with incontrovertible evidence that it can think, quite possibly the scariest moment in the entire film for me even though it’s not new information when it does arrive, works precisely down to it subverting typical nightmare logic and acting in understandable ways; again, like a nightmare crossing over into reality just enough to remain paralyzingly terrifying. And, once upon a time, Ridley Scott understood this.
With Alien: Covenant, Scott has finally managed to do what naming it, making more of it, turning it into cannon fodder, giving it a Queen, making it fight the Predator, merchandising it, toy-ing it, shoving it into Mortal Kombat, and years upon years of franchise mismanagement could not: it made me no longer scared of the Alien. Even if I hadn’t ended up completely and totally non-plussed by the Alien when it finally shows up, Covenant would still have been a terrible movie. The dialogue is crap, the tension is non-existent, every single one of its characters are thinly-sketched and irritating dumbasses of the highest order, there are a trio of abysmal performances – Katherine Waterston, especially, continues to be one of the worst actresses working today, importing over the exact same “Carrie from Homeland in the middle of one of her Jazz freak-outs” performance she gave in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and I have no patience for her “12 year-old at a Middle School play” style of acting – and the themes of destructive creators and God Complexes are nothing but half-baked retreads of those Scott more fittingly explored in Blade Runner. Prometheus made me angrier, but that at least aimed higher and had the C-Section sequence. Covenant is too deliberately middle-of-the-road and pedestrian to provide feelings that strong on its own.
But none of that not is why Covenant stuck in my craw so thoroughly throughout 2017. No, it’s because of just how much it works to try and kill the Alien. Republican politicians don’t try as hard at killing poor people as Alien: Covenant does in trying to murder the Alien, and they don’t do so in as many ways as Covenant does. For starters, Covenant is a deeply, deeply, DEEPLY silly movie, yet is so desperate to appear philosophical and be a “thinking man’s sci-fi” that it only makes the silliness stick that much more. Everybody is blathering on about the nature of man and purpose and other first semester of Psychology nonsense, and then a designated Horror sequence turns up and everybody seamlessly switches into the kinds of pratfalls and poor decision-making that’s more befitting a Looney Tunes villain, even after you try and give them the leeway that one is supposed to give horror movie protagonists. That unawares silliness even bleeds over to the Alien itself in an infamous chestburster sequence that, in this deadly serious sci-fi allegory about God complexes run amok, calls to mind no less a filmmaker than Mel Brooks.
But silliness alone cannot kill the terrifying power of the Alien. It’s had multiple bust-ups with the Predator and those are the definition of silly. Nor can the aforementioned back story cooked up by Covenant – David did it cos he was bored, which is a complete synopsis of both this and Prometheus in all honesty – since, let’s face it, the mystery of the Alien died out as soon as they made Aliens, and that didn’t stop Aliens from being nerve-shreddingly tense all the same. And nor can alternately inept and passionless filmmaking, since those are practically featured components of every Alien film post-Alien 3. And shoving the Alien into the third act of an otherwise largely-unrelated movie so that we can redo the beats from Alien in a third of the time doesn’t inherently cheapen the creature, since, when you look at it in the evolution of the horror genre, the Alien is effectively a slasher movie villain but in the form of a wild animal, so I guess the shower-sex murder makes a kind of sense. And making it entirely CGI, embarrassingly low-rent CGI at that, does not necessarily finish the character off on its own, by turning it into yet another weightless computer creation like so many others in today’s blockbuster landscape…
But all of that? Together? And with Ridley Scott back in the driver’s seat of his original creation, pretty bullishly making a big show and dance about his return coming from a creative desire rather than money? Yeah. Yeah, that’ll do it. By dropping the Alien into that swirling cauldron of shite, Scott and Covenant finally managed to kill my fear of the Alien stone dead. Individually, those factors don’t particularly do much damage, none more so than other iconic characters having their names slowly dragged through the mud thanks to years of bad franchise management. But the Alien always had a special aura around it to me, something that always caused it to make me so supremely terrified about it that I still, to this day, have not played Alien: Isolation despite it sounding like the perfect treatment for the creature. Perhaps I’m privileged because I wasn’t around in the 80s when it was being sold to literal children, but the Alien was able to weather everything and still come out with its specific terror intact. Covenant, thanks to everything I described in this entry, broke that spell and turned it into nothing more than a generic third-act monster made up of thousands of weightless digital pixels with behaviour exactly like that of the killer in a High School slasher movie. It’s not even a man in a cheap suit, anymore. It is, for the first time, fully unreal, and a nightmare cannot come back from that.
A few months after we both saw Covenant, Lucy and I re-watched Alien at her place. Alien is still a masterpiece, but the escape pod scare did not send fear shooting down me like it used to. I will never forgive Ridley Scott for that.
01] Beauty and the Beast
Dir: Bill Condon
Star: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans
My Bottom 5 Films this year, as well as the unofficial entry of Transformers: The Last Knight, all share a thematic link between them. It’s why they’re all grouped together and it’s why they’re the only entries on this Bottom 10 that I’ve written with genuine venomous passion. 2017 was a phenomenal year for movies, I stand by that assertion wholeheartedly, and just as many of those phenomenal films were coming from big expensive studio-backed blockbusters and long-storied franchises as they were low-budget little-seen indies, which was fantastic to see. But I am incredibly hesitant to remain optimistic about this becoming a trend. Because, in addition to your Blade Runners and your Guardians of the Galaxys and War for the Planet of the Apes’, studios were just as willing this year to try and push the limits of what audiences might consider acceptable amounts of “not trying.”
The Emoji Movie, Ghost in the Shell, Bright, Alien: Covenant, Transformers: The Last Knight. These are works that all see “artistic worth” as a distant second to “making a lot of money for as little effort as possible.” Some of them decided to abuse the false notion that kids animation requires no quality control or artistic intentions because kids, and more importantly the parents that pay the entry fees, only want bright shiny colours to distract them for 90 minutes to absolute breaking point. Others believed that their generic, uninspired, lifeless template blockbusters could successfully make up that handicap by, in the most mercenary fashion possible, slapping largely-unrelated franchise branding over the top of it and reeling in a few easy bucks from fans of said franchise hoping for nostalgia kicks or an excuse to become very angry on the drive home. Then there were those who decided to actively reward those who treat movie watching as nothing more than background static to the vastly more important jobs of “doing literally anything else” by wasting hundreds of millions of dollars creating films that collapse the second that any conscious thought is applied to them by the viewer.
Some of these cons failed, others succeeded moderately well, but they are all absolutely where the major Hollywood studios would love for the movies to become in the future. Anything that makes the process in which they can dive into pits filled with Scrooge McDuck-levels of money more efficient. We got lucky this year that a whole bunch of hard-working, visionary, and talented filmmakers – and I’m not just referring to the directors who get all of the credit, I’m talking about every single person involved in those films that made up my Top 20 for the year – brought tangible passion and creativity to projects that theoretically should have been additional bodies to add to this particular pile of examples. Let’s be frank, a 21 years later Trainspotting sequel had no right to be as excellent as it was. But it’s not always going to be like this, and much of this year’s Summer movie season gave us a worryingly bland, empty taste of what that future could be like. In all honesty, you could rearrange every prior entry in this Bottom 5 into any order you’d prefer and I’d still agree with you over it, but my #1 cannot be budged.
Beauty and the Beast is not a good movie, more of a “death by a thousand cuts” scenario, but it is the best of this Bottom 5 by an astronomical margin. After all, in its best moments, it is a direct live-action translation of Disney’s own 1991 animated masterpiece, just with bad singing and staging that makes everybody look like animatronics in the process of breaking down – and in its worst, it’s Disney CinemaSins-ing their own movie in real-time, but that’s a whole other article I’ll likely never get to. If you do just want to turn up and have your nostalgia centres comforted by seeing all of the best parts of Beauty and the Beast “reimagined” in live-action, then this new one has you covered, because that is all that it is aiming to do. Maybe also just stop paying attention to the film completely when it starts altering or adding in certain lines and scenes, though, otherwise you might start noticing the seams coming apart and be driven slowly insane by everybody somehow managing to screw-up the easiest lay-up in the world.
But compare Beauty and the Beast to Disney’s prior history of remaking or reimagining their Animated Classics for live-action purposes, or even just remaking forgotten live-action works. Alice in Wonderland, Oz: The Great and Powerful, Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon. What started out as radical reinterpretations of the original text, for good or ill, peaked with Maleficent – which reimagined Sleeping Beauty as a crazed feminist rape-revenge piece, and is exactly as much of a perversely amazing pile-up of a movie as that sounds – and ever since has largely turned into straightforward translations of whatever the Disney Franchise Wheel of Fortune landed on this quarter. Cinderella had everything but talking mice and the songs, The Jungle Book put some of the songs back in, and now Beauty and the Beast is just straight-up the original film but with the occasional minor change or additional song try and justify the whole enterprise. Some of these films have been great, the Pete’s Dragon remake was even a vast improvement on the original, but that’s not the point. The point is that, even when they phone in something like Beauty and the Beast, Disney can get away with it because they are Disney.
Until Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi came out, Beauty and the Beast was the highest grossing film of the year worldwide. In a way, it’s just a continuation of the fact that the most successful movie of any given year is a sequel or franchise entry. You would have to go back to 2009 – because, remember, Frozen is a part of the Disney Animated Canon, which makes it part of a franchise – to find the last original movie that was the year’s top earner (Avatar), and then back to 1998 to find the time before that (Armageddon). But I can’t help but get hung up on this fact. Beauty and the Beast has no reason to exist, not when every family is practically given a Home Video copy of the animated version the second that the mother of the household gets pregnant (it comes free with every ultrasound), other than to guarantee record 1st Quarter profits for the Disney corporation based solely on the back of brand recognition. Alice in Wonderland was godawful, but at least everybody there was trying something different with the material. All of them post-Cinderella add nothing to the originals. It’s not like Disney needs the money! They’re not early-2000s Disney, they’re not going to become suddenly insolvent! They could have written off the losses provided by that Pirates of the Caribbean fifth-quel nobody saw via the profits generated by Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 alone, never mind Star Wars!
Disney doesn’t need this. They’ve got LucasFilm, they’ve got Marvel, they’ve got Pixar, and they’ve got their animation department. If there was a big-ticket movie in 2017 that you saw, chances are it was Disney-affiliated. And it’s only going to get worse from 2018 onwards. We are getting Mary Poppins sequels, a live-action Winnie-the-Pooh movie, a live-action Dumbo, a live-action Aladdin, a live-action-ish Lion King (those last 3 are all within 4 months of each other), a live-action Mulan, more Planes movies, Pixar are still making sequels, and even Disney’s own animation studio, which has only made one direct sequel in their whole animated canon (and it wasn’t a particularly good one), now have 2 coming in successive years. And this is all, of course, without mentioning the continuing steam train of Marvel and Star Wars instalments. Could these all be great and surprising and potentially escape the mercenary reasons for which they were greenlit? Of course! If you’d told me at the beginning of the year that one of the best films of 2017 would be an X-Men-related movie, I would have laughed in your face. But it’s a slate that reflects a complete aversion to any idea that isn’t guaranteed an opening weekend of $80 million+ because of market analytics and brand recognition and all of the things that are anathema to artistry.
But they’ll get away with it because they’re Disney. They are too wedded to all of our individual pop culture evolutions, my own included, to ever be sufficiently called out on it. As long as enough of those remakes/reimaginings are at least decent, as long as Pixar puts out something original every 4 films, as long as Star Wars and Marvel don’t start sucking consistently, as long as the animated classics that made their name are still there, as long as they occasionally do things like write Ava DuVernay a $100 million cheque to make the blockbuster she’s clearly always wanted to make, none of us are ever going to stop watching Disney films. We couldn’t even if we wanted to. And when the schedule starts potentially looking a little anaemic, then they’ll just buy up some competition instead and add a few more lucrative brand names to the library, as they have just done with 20th Century Fox, before trying to squeeze just a little bit more out of the cinemas that show their films because, again, they can’t not show Disney films. Every big-ticket item is in some way Disney-affiliated now.
This is why Beauty and the Beast is my #1, because it represents the future and that future leaves me deeply concerned. I’ll see you at the midnight screening of A Wrinkle in Time, yeah?
Tomorrow: Nothing. There is none. WE ARE DONE! I AM FREE! FREE AT LAST! I AM GOING TO GO AND FEEL SUNLIGHT ON MY FACE! GOOD NIGHT!
Callum Petch is one step closer to the edge and he’s about to…