Beast that can charm a savaged princess

22nd December 1995 at 00:00
Robin Buss picks the plums from the Christmas releases.

Jean Cocteau wrote a good deal about cinema as a medium for poetry ("a wonderful and dangerous weapon in a poet's hands"), about the nature of cinematic realism and how, with his designer Christian Berard and his cameraman Henri Alekan, he set about "making the implausible plausible" in films such as La Belle et la Bete.

The special effects in that film (which is being re-released this month) are likely to seem primitive after 50 years: arms reach out of the castle walls holding candelabra, La Belle glides down the corridors, dishes are served by disembodied hands.

As Cocteau records in his Diary of a Film (1950), they were achieved by sheer ingenuity, using the most elementary devices. There is little nowadays that the camera and the computer together cannot do; but at Christmas, in particular, one looks to pantomime, theatre, or cinema for a different kind of magic, and Cocteau's work has it.

La Belle et la Bete is not a film for young children, but one can imagine the teenager who would be enchanted by it, if he or she is lucky enough to live near Edinburgh's Filmhouse or one of the three London cinemas showing the splendid new black-and-white print.

The big money this Christmas will be going through the box office for the latest James Bond, GoldenEye. After a brief flirtation with political correctness, when Timothy Dalton took the role, we now return to an unreconstructed Bond, Pierce Brosnan, whose own boss describes him as a sexist dinosaur.

There is no denying that the world has changed since 007 faced up to Dr No in 1962, but the formula remains the same: action, a hint of self-mockery and a delight in "making the implausible plausible". Even the high-tech special effects have a kind of magic when they are perfectly executed.

A huge amount of money went on the sequence before the credit titles in GoldenEye, when Bond blows up a Russian hydroelectric station and escapes in a light aircraft which he chooses, characteristically, to board in mid-air. This was spectacular enough to get a round of applause when I saw it at a preview in London, so presumably the money was well-spent.

On the whole, however, we don't expect Christmas films to bludgeon us with a battery of stunts and explosions. The magic that we look for probably has to do with momentarily capturing a childhood belief in a cosier, more benevolent world - hence the popularity of movies about Father Christmas (The Santa Clause), animals with human feelings (Babe), families rescued from distress (Three Wishes), and that sort of thing. Special effects can help to sustain the illusion, but there are dangers in relying on them; and, in any case, time spent on action is time lost to developing plot and character.

The climax of Nick Park's Oscar-winning animated feature, The Wrong Trousers, was a breath-taking train chase. There is even more of the same kind of action in his latest film, A Close Shave, including an explicit reference to the gadgetry of the Bond movies.

Eventually, it may be that too many parodies of other films, too many knowing winks to the audience, too much reliance on motorcycle chases, swooping planes, near-misses and so on, will undermine the charm of Wallace, the Northern inventor, and Gromit, his silent (and much cleverer) dog; but it hasn't happened yet.

This is still a brilliant piece of Plasticine animation, achieving a narrative pace that is all the more impressive when you consider that it was filmed at the agonisingly slow rate of about 70 frames, or three seconds of screen time, per day. Unfortunately, it was completed too late to find a theatrical distributor, though it can be seen in London at the ICA, and is to be shown on BBC2 on Christmas Eve.

Traditional, hand-drawn cel animation was used in the making of The Swan Princess, the first feature-length movie made by a former Disney Studios director, Richard Rich, who left in the late 1980s to set up his own company (which says it finds computers invaluable - in the accounts office).

He seems to have taken with him not only an attachment to the old methods, but also a love of the old stories. A prince and princess are to be married, but when the time comes, she refuses because she thinks that his love is only skin-deep. Meanwhile, the wicked Rothbart is plotting to capture the princess for himself and to transform her into a swan. The prince will have to prove his true love before she can recover her mortal shape.

The narrative as well as the animation technique seem locked in the tradition established by Snow White: cardboard hero and heroine, pastel colouring and enjoyable minor characters. There are some modern twists to this old tale: Rothbart, for example, in the best of the film's songs, glories in being "politically incorrect" - but the Disney villain has always had an equivocal fascination.

This is a long way, however, from Cocteau's realisation that the Beast, as beast, is the hero, and that his transformation into a run-of-the-mill Prince Charming will be a big disappointment to the heroine: "I shall have to get used to it," she snaps, envisaging a tedious future as wife and mother to Prince Avenant.

Nonetheless, most children will probably enjoy The Swan Princess, most parents happily endure it. Maybe one shouldn't ask more of a Christmas film.

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