25 Days of Christmas Movies: Beauty & the Beast – The Enchanted Christmas (1997)

Beauty_and_the_Beast_-_The_Enchanted_Christmas_Special_Edition_DVD_cover

Don’t judge me, ok? Whatever, I don’t care. I loved this movie when I was a kid. That said, having re-watched it recently, it is intensely problematic. I’m basically adding it for nostalgia reasons and because I’m always down with anything that promotes reading because books are awesome. Also, the ending is way too cute for it not to make the list.

Anyway, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas  (1997) takes place somewhere in the middle of the Oscar-winning Beauty & the Beast (1991), after Belle (Paige O’Harais attacked by wolves but before the iconic ballroom scene. In that time, the holidays are approaching, but the castle couldn’t be more oblivious, since they haven’t exactly celebrated Christmas in about a decade. They’re more preoccupied with a possible romance between their master and Belle, the pretty young bibliophile (and woman after my own heart) who took her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner.  For if Belle is “the one” her love could break the spell that has transformed them all into objects (and their master into a hideous monster) and they would return to their human form. The Beast (Robby Benson) is as ornery as ever, even despite his infatuation with Belle, and it’s actually a bit disturbing, in that he is incredibly unpredictable with his mood swings. Clearly, I was still reeling off the original, which worked as a love story largely because at a certain point, the Beast becomes so gentle, we tend to forget how aggressive and cruel he was in the first half hour of the film. There’s no escape here. He’s pretty much a prick for a third of the film, with fleeting glimpses of humanity in between. His back story is somewhat more fleshed out, at least. We learn the reason the Beast hates Christmas so much is because that was the day he was cursed. The enchantress responsible for his present physicality shows up on his doorstep while the young prince–he’s actually a child, which makes sense given the timeline presented in the original–is opening his presents, greedily and without much gratitude. Certainly he could’ve used a good smack, but who curses an eleven-year-old? I digress. After hearing that Chip (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) has never celebrated Christmas, Belle decides to bring the festivities to the castle, both for her own sanity and the servants’. She even wraps up a present for the Beast: a book she’s written about him. With the help of Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), Lumiere (Law and Order’s Jerry Orbach), Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury), and the one-time castle decorator-turned-Christmas-ornament Angelique (Bernadette Peters), the preparations proceed. However, Forte (Tim Curry), the court composer, has since his transformation into a giant pipe organ assumed a more prominent role in the master’s life. His melancholy tunes do for the Beast what Taylor Swift does for girls who have been broken up with, and Forte is not about to give up such a sweet position without a fight. He sends the shy, eager to please Fife (Paul Reubens–yes, that Paul Reubens) to thwart Belle and the servants, but despite their many setbacks, their hope and determination prove difficult to stop. 

Belle hangs a stocking on the make-shift tree

Belle hangs a stocking on the make-shift tree

For a Christmas film, it’s certainly not the most lighthearted. The mood of this film is much darker than the first, with its gray-green lighting and the Beast’s alarming anger issues. Oddly or not, the fact that Belle is a prisoner is much  more real here, as opposed to the original where she was referred to and largely treated like “a guest.” But in a way that works. The message is that even in the darkest hours, Christmas is a reminder of hope, the one day of the year where all problems are forgotten and replaced with love and loved ones. This film boasts several catchy songs including “As Long as There’s Christmas” and (my personal favorite) “Stories”–about the beauty of reading and books–and the animation, of course, is up to typical Disney standard. If nothing else, it’s not a half bad follow up to the original.

So…M. Night Shyamalan May Not Be A Total Hack

Bryce Dallas Howard in “The Village”

I really hope I haven’t lost you with the title. The fully warranted consensus of the past few years, which have seen flops like The Happening, Devil, and perhaps most offensively, The Last Airbender, is that M. Night Shyamalan is a hack. A one-trick pony. Not even a poor man’s Guillermo del Toro, but a caricature of himself, arrogantly riding the coattails of his early success.

Yeah, I don’t like him all that much either. Even worse than his formulaic storytelling, worse than the unnecessary cloud of mystery shrouding the theatrical release of his all too predictable films, are his own smug cameos pointlessly inserted in almost every one of his movies.

Not to mention, he seems to have fallen hard for his own gimmick, and there is nothing more unforgivable in a director.

No one can deny The Sixth Sense deserves the lofty place it so quickly obtained in American pop culture. “I see dead people,” remains one of, if not the most chilling soundbite of all time, more recognizable than “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “Frankly, my dear, I just don’t give a damn,” and “Luke, I am your father.” At this point, I hope you’re nodding in concession and are willing to read on to the next paragraph where I may lose you again.

It’s not the ghosts that make The Sixth Sense such a prime example of good filmmaking, nor is it the much-discussed twist. No, The Sixth Sense succeeds largely due to Shyamalan’s incredible knack for building tension and suspense, almost organically, and the overarching theme of loneliness that permeates the film. The ghosts were just cherry on top of an already delicious and satisfying cake. The fact that Shyamalan has continued to place more and more emphasis on the supernatural and the shock factor suggest he doesn’t really know his own strengths. Because for all his faults, he can be a decent writer and director when he wants to be.

Case in point: The Village. I really think it’s one of his best films. I believe, or perhaps I just hope, that this film will in time become one of those cult favorites in the vein of Labyrinth or Heathers. I doubt it will actually happen, but like Morgan Freeman’s Red, I hope. The Village had the misfortune of being released right when people were beginning to tire of Mr. Shyamalan and his antics. His obsessive protectiveness–refusing to reveal the plot or to allow his actors, promoting the film on talk shows, to show full, coherent clips–and, of course, that whole Sci-Fi Channel hoax, both of which contributed to the widely -held impression that this latest film of his would follow in the same tradition as The Sixth Sense. Thus began the public’s disillusionment with the director. The film was largely promoted as horror or a thriller, when it in actuality it was a love story with the occasional jump moment here and there. I love the movie, and even I can’t say there was anything especially thrilling or even remotely creepy about it. For this reason, not a few audience members left the theater with a huge question mark hovering above their heads. All this to say, The Village did not really have a fair start.

Bryce Dallas Howard and Adrien Brody

Personally, I remember being super excited for this film when it was coming out. I was only fourteen and luckily it was rated PG-13 so I didn’t need a parent or an older cousin to take me. I was also just getting into the habit of seeing films by myself and had grown to prefer it that way. I also remember coming out of the theater as confused and let down as my fellow audience members, but generally grateful that the first horror film I saw alone likely wouldn’t give me nightmares. The people walking out with me were not quite as forgiving.

While The Village was successful box office-wise, it was critically slammed, even by Ebert, a reviewer typically after my own heart. No matter; even leaving Dutch Square Mall in my disoriented, un-thrilled haze, I bought it when it came out on DVD. It held up well on a second viewing. And a third. And a fourth. When I accidentally scratched the DVD and it would no longer play, I replaced it almost immediately. That’s not to say the  film is flawless. No, Shymalan and his ego get in the way too often for that. But it is at least well-acted, well-scored, and for the most part, well-written and directed.

Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard

The Village is an interesting case because it showcases Shymalan’s biggest strengths and his biggest shortcomings. Like I said, he is a master at creating tension and suspense. Before we  hear about “Those We Do Not Speak Of,” the audience sees the terror in the people that populate the village of the title.  The movie begins with a funeral: the son of August Nicholson (a very understated Brendan Gleeson) has just died. Afterwards, when the villagers are all gathered around long picnic tables for dinner, mysterious sounds reach out to them from the nearby woods. The ensuing montage follows the townspeople as they attend to their chores and go about their daily rituals while James Newton Howard’s haunting, melancholy score plays not at all subtly in the background. At one point, two young women are sweeping their porch and proceed to spin around playfully together. Suddenly, they stop. One young woman frowns as she turns to her companion. The camera drops to reveal a single red flower. The urgency with which they snatch up the flower and bury it, the violin yearning in the background–something’s not quite right, obviously. The audience doesn’t have to wait too long to discover the source of the fear that plagues these quiet, seemingly innocuous people.

In  the very next scene, Mr. Walker comes upon his students encircled around a partly skinned animal with its head twisted back. When he inquires as to the culprit, one child replies for all of them: “Those we don’t speak of.”

If nothing else, Shyamalan’s technique is worthy of one film class discussion. Despite the fact that the townspeople don’t dress like us, don’t talk like us, don’t even look like all of us (the cast is all-Caucasian) we connect with them almost immediately. The audience watches them engage with each other endearingly–the women twirling on the porch, the two children splashing each other when they’re supposed to be watching dishes. We feel sympathy, too, for it’s not soon forgotten that a man has just lost his son–a child, judging from the lingering close-up of a headstone engraved with two dates, not many years elapsed between them.  Moreover, at this point, the source of their fear has yet to be identified; “Those We Don’t Speak Of” could be anything. Our imaginations are allowed to run wild for the first part of the film.

Shymalan thankfully has the wherewithal to know a story, any story, is nothing without well-rounded personalities to inhabit the space he has created. The audience is introduced to a plethora of likeable characters: the shy, but courageous Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix); the carefree tomboy Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), daughter of kindly schoolteacher Edward Walker (William Hurt); the mentally handicapped Noah Percy (Adrian Broday); and the soft-spoken Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver), Lucius’s mother.

These characters collectively serve as the film’s emotional compass, and this is a largely sentimental movie. “The world moves for love,” Mr. Walker tells a wary group of elders. “It kneels before it an awe.” Indeed, almost every action in the film is guided by love, the fear of losing it perhaps even more than the joy of finding it. And though all of this might sound schmaltzy, somehow it works. Phoenix and Howard have a sweet, tender chemistry, which makes us root for them and also makes them a solid foundation for the film. Other storylines, however, seem superfluous. What’s the point of Mr. Walker’s undeclared and ultimately fruitless love for Mrs. Hunt? The lack of it certainly would’ve saved the audience at least ten minutes of tedious, surreptitious gazing.

Fortunately, like I said, the story really belongs to Ivy and Lucius, and then to Ivy, a woman who didn’t even want to talk about  unpleasant things because it “put knots in her stomach.” Their love story becomes the catalyst for Ivy’s growth and the unveiling of the secrets harbored by the town’s elders.

SPOILERS

In time it’s revealed that the creatures are not real. The Elders are comprised of a grief counseling group who each lost a loved one to uncommonly tragic circumstances, inciting the wealthy Mr. Walker to propose they move to his father’s grassy compound and build an Amish community of sorts. In order to protect their children from the outside world, to stunt their curiosity about the outside world, they created “Those We Don’t Speak Of.” It sounds pretty far-fetched, and indeed it’s presented clumsily. This revelation comes as one unwelcome twist too many, wrapped in Hurt’s ponderous voice-over and an overstated musical cue (Howard and Hahn’s only misstep–although alone it’s a beautiful composition).

That said, it does at least prompt an examination of fear and what it means to live. Death, contrary to popular opinion, is part of life, as is love, and so sorrow is part of life as well. “We know that now,” says Gleeson’s Nicholson. “If Ivy wants to run towards hope, let her run.”

This exchange comes after Noah hears that Lucius is engaged  to Ivy, and jealously proceeds to stab Lucius several times. So Walker agrees to let Ivy go to “The Towns” in order to retrieve the medicine that could save his life. I’ll leave you to figure out the rest.

The Village is no masterpiece. No one could ever say that. But it is a fine example of filmmaking. The sweeping cinematography, James Newton Howard and Hilary Hahn’s score is a match made in musical heaven, and despite being given some very hard to deliver lines, Hurt, Dallas, Phoenix, Weaver and Gleeson (as well as their smaller supporting counterparts) each rise commendably to the occasion.

TOP 5 MOST UNDERRATED CHILD PERFORMANCES

JURNEE SMOLLETT Eve’s Bayou

Okay. I know I talk about Eve’s Bayou a lot, but that’s only because it is a truly phenomenal example of filmmaking that has stuck with me for well over a decade. I first watched this film on HBO when I was about eight or nine years old. It was Rated R and I knew better than to ask my mom to purchase  a film that featured sex, drugs, and murder, not to mention incest. After that first viewing, I caught it on television two or three times over the next few years. But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I was finally able to purchase the DVD, which, by the way, was not exactly easy to find. I literally called every video place in Columbia until I managed to find it at this small independent shop in the mall. A little over the top? Maybe. But more than anything my determination was a testament to what a profound effect this film had  had on me, even though I hadn’t seen it in years.

One of the main reasons Eve’s Bayou is stuck high in my Top 10 Favorite Movies of All Time is the emotionally raw performance by Jurnee Smollett. I wholeheartedly believe that I was able to love and connect with this very adult story at such a young age because of her. More than I saw myself in her, I knew her.

Jurnee Smollett in Eve’s Bayou

Grown-up Eve’s narration frames the story, but we process the film through the eyes of ten-year-old Eve; and the eyes are very important. Eve is gifted with “The Sight” or clairvoyance, like her Aunt Mozelle, but she is no melancholy, wise-beyond-her-years Haley Joel Osment balking at her supernatural ability. Eve is first and foremost a girl like any other; a girl who sees her father making love to a woman who is not her mother; a girl who sees his preference for her older sister, sees her mother’s depression, sees her aunt’s tragic loneliness. The film becomes an exploration of what such a world looks like to a child. It would not have worked if Smollett had brought an ounce of pretentiousness or precociousness to her performance. Fortunately, Eve’s Bayou succeeds firmly in the hands of it’s young star who emotes like a pro.

MATT O’LEARY Frailty

This is another film that has stuck with me over the years, but for very different reasons. Frailty is not the kind of story you relate to; it’s the kind of story that creeps the hell out of you. Even though most of the violence takes place off screen, the movie still manages to drive the point home in a very unsettling manner. I discovered this film largely thanks, once again, to HBO. Either it had just been released onto video and Pay-Per-View was restlessly advertising its new addition, or I saw the trailer on TV Guide. Whatever the case, I didn’t initially want to see it. It was obviously a horror film; even today I remember being appropriately creeped out by that chilling shot of Matt O’Leary‘s face disappearing in the darkness as his father says, “Only demons should fear me. You’re not a demon, are you?”

Which brings me to Matt O’Leary. This guy is one of the most underrated, underused, unrecognized young actors working today. Sure, he’s appeared in some duds like Sorority Row, but he is at his best in off-beat, thought-provoking indies like American Son and Natural Selection (he’s at it again in the sure to be awesome Fat Kid Rules the World, hopefully released later this year). I mean, kid consistently turns in critically acclaimed performances, but few people know about him and he doesn’t work nearly as often as he should.  He is passed over instead for decidedly mediocre acts like Robert Pattinson and Zac Efron. This is the world we live in.

Matt O’Leary, Jeremy Sumpter, and Bill Paxton in Frailty

Anyway, I first noticed him in Frailty. Having nothing to do and it being the middle of theday (I had hours before I had to go to sleep), I decided to give the film a chance when I watched it On Demand one afternoon at my aunt’s house. I was not disappointed. Thankfully, it was more family drama than horror film. When a man claims to have received a vision from God, telling him to take out the “demons” in their small Texas town, one son (Jeremy Sumpter) accepts his word without question while the other (O’Leary) becomes increasingly disturbed.

Once again, without a solid performance from actor O’Leary, the film would have failed. He turns in a performance that is all at once sympathetic, heartfelt, vulnerable, vaguely sinister, and multi-layered. He had to be about twelve or thirteen when he filmed this, and I always wonder how much of it was deliberate.

If you are a sane audience member, you will most likely side with O’Leary’s character who believes that his father is a whackjob. However, if you ever get a chance to pick up the DVD, the screenwriter offers an entirely different and interesting perspective that will make you think twice about who is supposed to be the hero of this story.

HUNTER MCCRACKEN The Tree of Life

It came as no surprise to me that Terrence Malick‘s latest effort turned out to be one of the most polarizing films of the year, if not the decade. With The Tree of Life, you either hate it or love it. As a Malick fan, and as fan of unconventional films in general, I loved it. In another post a while back, I criticized Malick’s writing. Well, I take it all back. Obviously he’s not a bad writer. It’s just that he rarely gives his characters more to express than poetic musings. But I can’t expect him to be like every other filmmaker out there. That’s why I love him. I love that he allows the audience to peer inside his characters’ heads. I love that he lingers on the details. I love that he is in no hurry to get to the next plot device. Malick’s brand of filmmaking reminds me of the John Keats quote in Bright Star when he is explaining the “point” of poetry:

“The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is a experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.”

This is Malick all the way. But this may also be part of the reason The Tree of Life was received poorly by at least half its audience, because in this Avatar-era of filmmaking, we are used to having our messages spelled out for us. Malick chose to do an ambitious film largely about life: growing up, family relationships, faith, and death. He offers little in the way of explanation, because how could he? Life is not exactly a 2 + 3 = 5 situation.

Laramie Eppler, Jessica Chastain, and Hunter McCracken in The Tree of Life

All that said, one thing most critics could agree  upon is the stunning performance by Hunter McCracken, who plays young Jack. Once again, the success of the film rests firmly in his hands, and he rises brilliantly to the occasion. What I find most impressive is that McCracken really doesn’t say much. Dialogue does not seem to be Malick’s forte, which is what I was hinting at before. No matter; we get plenty of insight into Jack’s head through his Southern-coated, pain-laden voiceovers, aching for answers he never seems to get. McCracken wanders, often stoically, through the film. You might never guess how he felt about anything unless you look into his eyes. Therein lies the true beauty of his performance. We can see in his eyes that Jack wants to love his father, does love his father, but hates him sometimes, too. We see in his eyes that he longs to be good like his brother R. L. and his mother–both characters the embodiment of Grace–and we see his frustration at the jealousy–the Nature in him–that he is desperate to suppress.  All this McCracken manages to convey beautifully, with a subtlety and–yes–grace some seasoned actors have yet to pull off.

Special mention should also go to Laramie Eppler who plays R. L. If Jack is the guiding light of the film, R. L. is certainly the heart; and Eppler plays him with an unassuming, heartbreaking tenderness. Not to mention, he looks extraordinarily like Brad Pitt who plays Father/Mr. O’Brien.

TO BE CONTINUED…