20 September 2012

DISNEY SEQUELS: LOOKING LIKE SOME POOR DEMENTED DOVE

The considerable success of Aladdin and the King of Thieves, I suspect, is the proximate cause that transformed the direct-to-video sequel from curiosity to major revenue stream for Disney in the late '90s; the real glut of DTV projects started coming out at just about the perfect time to have been greenlit right around the release of that picture. We now arrive at the project with which that glut began in earnest: from November, 1997, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas.

Unlike the two sequels to Aladdin, which are typically regarded with a certain begrudging acceptance, an attitude that, since they exist, we might as well at least attempt to enjoy them, this first follow-up to the groundbreaking 1991 Beauty and the Beast is more frequently received with outright hostility by fans of the original, so I might as well open with the really bold part of this review: I don't have too big a problem with The Enchanted Christmas. It's not a patch on the original, of course; I imagine that part doesn't even need to be clarified. Beauty and the Beast is one of the high water marks of American animation, and one of the very best original musicals in cinema history; crucially, it is also entirely self-contained with a beautifully snug narrative arc that ends up giving every single character meaningful and theoretically permanent closure. Continuing the story makes no damn sense, which is perhaps why The Enchanted Christmas actually doesn't continue the story, but we'll get to that in a moment. In the meanwhile, I was busy making an ass of myself by declaring, in public, that I'm pretty much okay with this spectacularly unworthy sequel. If nothing else, by the standards of the three DTV features that had already been released by that point, the animation in this film is incomparably better, good enough in points that if you didn't know, you might think it was a legitimate production by a legitimate studio - not Walt Disney Feature Animation itself, of course, but certainly better than a TV animation outfit had any right to put out, and maybe this has something to do with The Enchanted Christmas being one of a small number of projects made at Disney's TV animation studios in Canada, something I didn't even know existed until watching the movie's credits.

Seriously, when a film opens with a multiplane-esque tracking shot up a rather nicely detailed waterfall, it's absolutely clear that we're in a place that The Return of Jafar doesn't even know about.

What it is not, admittedly, is anything resembling a decent companion to Beauty and the Beast. I cannot begin to pretend otherwise.

In order to find space for a new plot, the film's writers had to resort to a nasty trick that has been played several times since, and does not, I suppose, originate with Disney DTV pictures, though I suspect the ugly neologism does: the midquel. As in, "a sequel, but in the middle of the original, rather than after it". Beauty and the Beast owing to a very pointedly loose it not indeed irreconcilable chronology (it takes place over either three days or the entire winter, and there really are not other options), has some time to play with, time covered by a montage; time now filled by the discovery that the period of time that young local woman Belle (Paige O'Hara) spent in the enchanted castle deep within a forest, trapped by an angry Beast (Robbie Benson), included her attempt to improve his mood by throwing a Christmas celebration. And not just any Christmas celebration: a vigorously non-denominational one, in which even the name "Santa Claus" is off-limits, for fear of depressing sales. Or offending the castle's woodman, now transformed into an axe (Jeff Bennett), who for a reason that beggars my understanding is being played as an enormously broad caricature of a Jewish shopkeeper, complete with the thing, and the oy gevalt, already.

The problem is, we also now learn that Christmas, ten years ago, was the very same night that the Beast was first transformed into his present shape, along with all his household, by a pissed-off enchantress who looks nothing at all in flashbacks like she was represented before:


So the Beast hates Christmas even more than he already hates everything else, which makes Belle's nice attempts at brightening his mood backfire spectacularly, though the situation is being made even worse by the former court composer, Forte (Tim Curry), now an enormous pipe organ, who rather enjoys the constant misery surrounding him these days (It fits his dramatic but unpleasant music; because, kids, snobby artist types think that only unpleasant things are really artistic, so don't raise your standards and become like they are. Instead, keep enjoying these hellaciously cheap TV-animation sequels), and is trying to break Belle and the Beast apart before they fall in love and break the curse

It's a fairly desperate attempt to create a plot where there's no room for one: seriously, a villainous pipe organ with a flair for nihilism? The whole "Belle wants to make Beast happy and it backfires" plot wasn't enough to sustain 70 minutes? For that matter, the overriding problem with The Enchanted Christmas, and one that all the pipe organs in the world couldn't fix, is that Beauty and the Beast uses up all the conflict in this scenario: the process by which Belle and her captor fall in love is depicted in precisely enough detail that we see every step of it, with nothing missing; yet along comes this midquel to replicate exactly the same arc, hoping that the addition of a severely weird finale in which Forte literally tries to break the castle into rubble by playing music loudly enough will keep us from noticing that this film isn't merely redundant with Beauty and the Beast, it conflicts with it, such as the odd implication that the iconic ballroom scene with Belle in her elegant gold dress was the second time she and the Beast had gone on that exact same date; that, or the event we see at the close of this film is the same dance, and somehow we just missed the big Christmas tree in the middle of the ballroom before.

The Enchanted Christmas even manages to further problematise what was already the most awkward part of the original: Belle basically has a nasty case of Stockholm Syndrome, idealising and then marrying a man who held her prisoner. The original film manages to get away with this both by burying the worst of it in a really gorgeous pair of musical numbers ("Something There" and "Beauty and the Beast"), and by stacking the deck in the Beast's favor by including a far more intolerable specimen of male entitlement as the villain. The Enchanted Christmas, with an entire plot founded on "Belle just wants the Beast to be happy", positively wallows in this rather unsavory element.

Ah well. I did say that I mostly liked it for its animation, not its wobbly plot; though I think, taken on its own merits, if they deserve to be called that, the film is little worse than any other decent, largely perfunctory kids' fantasy about making the perfect Christmas, and it only attains the level of infamy, such as its most outraged anti-fans insist, in comparison with the original. And frankly, if we're going to ding the Disney sequels on the grounds of being spectacularly inappropriate follow-ups to classic originals, then there'd be no point to paying them any mind at all, and we're clearly in too deep for that kind of thinking now.

Even the animation, if one is being totally honest, has its downsides. For one thing, the Beast, while he hews awfully close to the model of the original feature, suffers from not being supervised by Glen Keane, who was forever and always the very best choice in Disney's stable of artists to animate such a burly, physical, animalistic figure; if the Beast isn't the very purest expression of that side of Keane's work, he's surely second only to the bear in The Fox and the Hound. There's no competing with that kind of top-tier work, and to the credit of the folks in Vancouver and Toronto given this immensely thankless job, they don't try to. Instead, they treat the character with a much more buoyant, cartoon flexibility that is much more in keeping with the more frivolous, childish aesthetic of this project relative to the original.

Basically, the Beast mugs. A lot.

He's still considerably better than Belle, who continues the trend established by Jasmine of making female characters in DTV sequels look like hideous, unspeakable gnomes with faces viewed as through a hazy glass of pure nightmare. Belle famously went off-model all the damn time in the original movie, owing to an accelerated production schedule; one gets the impression that the new animators were deliberately trying to go even further off course, in the hopes of one-upping their predecessors.

But not all is lost: the enchanted objects, the comic sidekicks voiced by the likes of Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, and newcomer Bernadette Peters (it's kind of stunning how successfully this sequel kept the whole cast intact; the only sub was Haley Joel Osment as upbeat preteen teacup Chip, presumably owing to previous actor Bradley Pierce coming down with a bad case of the puberty) are all, within the relative frame that this is a much cheaper project, entirely fair recreations of the original characters, moving with approximately the same flexibility and expressed with more less the same amount of caricature. The villainous Forte, despite his considerable dramatic flaws, is brought to life with CGI that would have been a whole hell of a lot more impressive in 1997 than it is today, allowing that for this reason, he does not cut together with the other, cel-animated characters at all, and perhaps to minimise this problem, he very rarely appears in the same frame.

There's even one moment that attempts to push into someplace that's actually creative and inventive, when Belle's attempt to write and illustrate a fairytale storybook is accompanied by drawings that attempt, with reasonable success, to mimic woodcut illustrations, given movement in limited animation (that is, only a very small number of frames per second, perhaps three or four, compared to 24 for Disney's theatrical animation and 12 for typical television animation) - an experiment with graphic design that beat a similar passage in the WDFA project Mulan by more than half a year, no less; I don't want to claim too much for what is ultimately just a montage sequence, but it's far more visually aggressive than one could readily expect from one of these things, and I expect it will remain among the most inventive of all sequences in all the Disney sequels yet to come in our little tour.

The style also has the noble benefit of distracting, at least slightly from "Stories", one of four original songs in the movie, all with lyrics by Don Black and music by actual, legitimate movie composer Rachel Portman, fresh off an Oscar win for Emma. It deserves mentioning, that Portman's win was in the Musical or Comedy Score subcategory created primarily as a means to break the stranglehold on Best Original Score held by Alan Menken, who won for the actual Beauty and the Beast, which is a whole lot better than the wretched noodling Portman brings to bear here. Though it's not all fault that the songs are consistently godawful; Black certainly didn't try very hard, particularly in the rhyming disaster that is Forte's big villain song, "Don't Fall in Love", where Curry employs some especially bad speak-singing to spit out Black's turgid poetry to Portman's erratic music. That's the musical low point of a score that also includes a feeble attempt at a Christmas ballad duet for O'Hara and Peters, and "A Cut Above the Rest", a comic ditty with virtually no music that ends almost the second it has registered that it's meant to be a number at all. And "Stories", which, however bland and overworked, is still the best thing here, partially because it gives O'Hara something to do, partially because it's the only song with enough of a melody that you'd feel confident in humming it.

So, another way that The Enchanted Christmas falls massively behind the melodious original; but again, we're not here to proclaim that this sequel can stand up to the original. It cannot - not even by the most generous measure does it come close. Even on its own merits, it's not a very special thing, with a go-nowhere villain (literally and figuratively), a dreadful final act, and empty characterisations; but it looks decent, which is more than we can take for granted, the narrative momentum doesn't sag, and at no point does it overtly assume that its audience is completely stupid, though it does perhaps assume that the audience is easily-amused. I am not, I suppose, defending it as successful; merely claiming that it left my childhood totally and blissfully un-raped, which in the scheme of things, I believe, makes me an Enchanted Christmas apologist.

3 comments:

Sssonic said...

In its best moments, I'll agree "Enchanted Christmas" is pretty to look at, but I'm hard pressed to call its animation particularly pleasing. I suppose part of it is my natural distaste for late-90's digital coloring, which tended to render animation colors far too saturated for my taste, and all too often did an absolutely terrible job of integrating cel-based characters into computer-rendered backgrounds (one more reason to despise "Don't Fall in Love" is how bizarre The Beast looks essentially floating in a CG ocean); it sits uncomfortably, in other words, on the fence between Modern Age and Old-School; at least the "Aladdin" DTV's knew were more visually consistent in that respect, and thus somewhat more pleasant for me to process visually speaking (though we're grading on quite the curve here, to be clear).

Tim said...

"All too often did an absolutely terrible job of integrating cel-based characters into computer-rendered backgrounds."

On this, we are in complete agreement, though I think that by virtue of having less CGI in general, the DTV sequels fall less into this than e.g. the theatrical Aladdin, or Pocahontas, which has scenes that I find almost physically painful to watch for this reason.

Where we part is on the issue of over-saturated color; it's there, certainly, but I tend to enjoy it, so far as it goes. Wouldn't want a steady diet of it, but sometimes one just wants to see colors pop.

And "we're grading on quite the curve" needs to be silently appended to each and every Disney sequel review I write, let's never forget.

K Wild said...

Tim, you might enjoy Nostalgia Chick's review of this midquel, if you haven't already seen it:
http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/team-nchick/nostalgia-chick/15171-ep022

Otherwise, nice animation aside, I spend most of my time pretending that this does not exist (similar to many upcoming sequels and midquels, like the Lion King II). Despite the fact that the entire story is lacking, my main pet peeve is how Belle can fall into a lake and not wind up a hypothermic mess. Not even a little bit of trembling for realism? Think of the story possibilities if she became genuinely sick. Think of... oh never mind.