Culture Vulture

In fairy tales, less is more

Spelling things out for the audience can cause stories to lose their magic

A fortnight ago, I caught Disney's remake of Beauty And The Beast at my local cinema.

Like many other 1990s kids, I was weaned on a diet of Disney cartoons and hearing those familiar tunes on the big screen gave me goosebumps.

I would be lying if I said I wasn't touched by the film. But I was moved, I think, primarily because of what a nostalgia trip it was.

For a film that espouses the value of looking beyond appearances, Beauty And The Beast seems particularly enamoured with the 1991 likeness on which it has modelled itself.

Director Bill Condon's live-action remake of the Disney classic is replete with stunning effects. It's a beautiful film. But in trying to replicate the success of the original, it seems to have lost some of its charm.

One thing I took issue with was the film's tendency to offer viewers more explanations than seemed necessary, for instance, by closing logical loop-holes and fleshing out characters' backstories.

In the YouTube Screen Junkies' Honest Trailer for the 1991 adaptation of Beauty And The Beast, the tongue-in-cheek narrator wonders if the Beast is "a prince that's so bad at his job he's been missing for 10 years and no one seems to notice".

People ask funny questions such as this all the time, but that doesn't mean the films need to dish out the answers.

Condon's remake explains from the outset that the powerful enchantress erased all memory of the castle inhabitants from the minds of those who knew them. Neat, eh?

But how does this, or any of the other new mini-revelations - finding out how a girl from a provincial town knows how to ballroom-dance or how her mother died - enrich the film?

After all, it is the unexplained, the "taken-for-granted" elements in the "original" fairy tales that create a sense of wonderment and encourage us to use our imagination.

From Emma Watson's self-conscious acting to a saccharine ballroom sequence, to the film's attempt to tick the feminist, gay and minority-group boxes, the remake felt like it was trying too hard to cover all its bases. What it needed was more space to breathe.

And all too often it felt like it was shying away from some of the more provocative elements of the 1991 film.

The transgressive potential of Belle entering the West Wing isn't fully exploited when Watson's character, unlike her Disney counterpart, doesn't lift open the bell jar containing the magic rose. Gaston's attempt to accuse Maurice of madness and send him to an asylum is also less disturbing here.

The live-action remake of Beauty And The Beast has quite passively re-hashed the original, with small adjustments for political correctness, feminism, minority groups and backstories - all the while colouring within the lines and working within the same old confines.

In its polished retelling of the original film, does the franchise, to lift the words of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, aspire towards "a kind of infinity, always a fraction of itself - suggestive of a bottomless money pit - always approaching but never reaching completion"?

Disney has announced that over the next few years, we can expect a slew of live-action remakes of animated classics such as Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994) and The Little Mermaid (1989).

What I'd prefer to see more of, however, are films such as Enchanted (2007) and Frozen (2013) that do more than simply cash in on nostalgia.

When I was a child, the films that captivated me most were those that sparked my imagination.

Not too long ago, I revisited an illustrated book of fairy tales I used to love reading when I was a kid. Leafing through its dog-eared pages, I was struck by how sparse, nondescript, the illustrations were compared to how I'd remembered them.

A sketchy rendering of anything - a rose, a water pump, a library - can expand into something larger than life if it captures a child's imagination.

But do films with such high-definition and sweeping cinematography give children the same scope for imagination that more "primitive" mediums such as books, cartoons or even older films used to offer?

Less may be more. In the original Disney film, the story's preamble is narrated over a series of stained glass stills which are all the more enchanting and terrifying because they give us something to work with - and let our imaginations do the rest. And the constraints posed by a black-and-white film composed in the first half of the 20th century, for instance, could encourage stylistic inventiveness and give viewers a chance to engage more imaginatively with the piece.

One of the marvellous things about Jean Cocteau's 1946 surrealistic adaptation of the tale, La Belle Et La Bete, is that it raises more questions than it provides answers.

The enchanted castle contains mysterious candlestick-bearing hands that the film audience can see, but which remain invisible to Belle and her father. We never find out what they really are.

Towards the end of the film, an animated statue of the hunter-goddess Diana strikes Belle's handsome but unpleasant suitor with an arrow, transforming him into a beast - just as the Beast regains his human form and springs back to life. To Belle's amazement, and ours, he bears an uncanny likeness to the suitor who had just been shot down.

Cocteau's cinematic classic unfolds with the logic of a dream, shying away from neat resolutions - like a ball of yarn the mind can play with and return to time and time again without it ever getting old.

His film, with its erotic, Freudian undercurrents, was probably intended for an adult audience.

But like many a traditional fairy tale, it has a cryptic simplicity - a sense that its straightforward storyline hides truths in plain sight.

The ambiguities, gaps and inconsistencies in these tales provide fecund openings for the terrors and consolations of the imagination.

It's here, in the raw, un-spelled-out interstices, that the magic of fairy tales lives on.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2017, with the headline 'In fairy tales, less is more'. Print Edition | Subscribe