Sunday, April 30, 2017

No One Gastons Like Gaston

I know I wrote pretty favorably of the new Beauty and the Beast film in my last entry. I even went so far as to call it superior to the 1991 original in a lot of ways, but now that the hype over this version is calming down and I've seen it again, I think it's only fair to discuss at least one of the ways that it pales in comparison. Changing anything in a remake is a gamble, and when it comes to changing something about a character, the results can be hit or miss. Sadly, I think that the new film's version of Gaston is a miss.

The whole point of Gaston's character is that he's the same way that the Prince/Beast was before meeting Belle. He's shallow, selfish, brutish, boastful, and simple-minded. He's also meant to be the epitome of everything that's wrong with the people in Belle's town, as is shown by how much they admire him for having all of those above mentioned qualities. In short, his character needs to be instantly unlikeable and impossible to take seriously.

Just look at his introduction scene in the original film, where we see him shooting ducks out of the sky in the middle of town. Killing hapless animals by the sack-load paints a lousy enough picture of his character, but the fact that he's doing it in the middle of a crowded village where the birds could fall on anyone illustrates how inconsiderate he is even to the people who admire him. You know right away what kind of a person he is.

In contrast, the new film instantly misses the point of Gaston by making him a war hero who's returning home from battle. I guess the idea was to give the townspeople a more realistic reason for admiring him so much, but Gaston's  contribution to the story's theme is supposed to be that he's stupid and selfish. It makes little sense that someone like that could achieve the rank of captain in the military and even less sense that he would risk his life to serve his country in the first place. The film tries to explain that he joined the war effort because he likes fighting, and it can be argued that he also likes bossing around subordinates and receiving medals for his exploits, but as we saw in the original film, there are easier ways for a sociopath to channel his bloodlust.

This sacrifice of character for the sake of realism can be seen all throughout Gaston's screen time in the new version. Two other examples of it are the scenes where he attempts to woo and propose to Belle. In the original film, he goes about it in his usual narcisistic way, bragging about himself and paying no attention to Belle's input because he assumes she adores him. He tosses her favorite book into the mud and casually says that women getting ideas from reading is bad for them, then he assembles an entire wedding outside her house before even proposing to her because he can't imagine why she wouldn't say yes. He's so unabashedly pig-headed that you can't help but be entertained by him.

The new film scales back both of these scenes so much that they actually make Gaston's character inconsistent. He begins his first talk with Belle by offering her flowers and complimenting the book that she's reading, which he admits that he hasn't read himself. Not only does this make him seem sensitive and even humble to some degree, but it contradicts his lines in the song "Belle" where he clearly explains that he only values Belle's beauty and doesn't care about her personality. Gaston shouldn't be making any effort to impress her; he should think that his mere presence is enough to win her over.

The proposal scene takes this even further. In addition to scrapping the whole preemptive wedding setup, the scene has Gaston argue his case to Belle by pointing out that unmarried women in their town become beggars when their fathers die. It's such a compelling argument that Belle can't even offer a good rebuttal. This kind of logic and tact simply doesn't work coming from a character who spends one of his first scenes hitting on his own reflection with all seriousness.

That makes all of this so unfortunate is that these inconsistencies and Gaston's overall more subtle portrayal make him totally unmemorable in the new film. I either don't know what his character is about or I find him so underwhelming that I tune him out altogether. Heck, he gets out-shined by his sidekick in a song called "Gaston" that's supposed to be all about him and how great he is, and Gaston's own contributions to that song are so low-key that they seem to sap energy out of the scene. That doesn't make a good villain.

I don't blame actor Luke Evans for this portrayal of the character. He gave the performance that he was told to give and the idea behind it simply didn't translate well. That seems to be a flaw with a lot of these recent Disney remakes; story elements, pivotal moments, and characters themselves either get rushed or watered down for some reason and a lot of their emotional resonance gets lost as a result. I still think there are plenty of very good things in the new Beauty and the Beast, but there were three core characters that it had to get right, and it only managed that with two. I don't like to disagree with the beautiful beast of Meat Loaf, but when this happens in a remake of a beloved classic, two out of three can sometimes be a little bad.

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