The Eagle Huntress (G) Limited release Beauty and the Beast (PG) National release from Thursday
Two films about girl power this week, and what’s surprising about this mixand-match is that the more evocative, exciting and moving one is not the glamorous Disney retelling of a fairytale but a Kazakh-language documentary set on Mongolia’s minus 50C frozen steppes.
Disney’s $US160 million live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast has its thrills and charms but The Eagle Huntress is something else altogether, for different reasons, some of which have been criticised. I’ll come to the criticisms later. You can read about them before seeing the film, or afterwards, and make up your own mind. But don’t decide not to go. You would be missing something that soars in more ways that one. The cinematography, some of it using cameras on drones, is awe-inspiring, especially when it follows an eagle in flight.
The main character is Aisholpan, a “child of the nomads” who has just turned 13. She has a younger brother and a younger sister. The family lives in a pleasant, skin-covered yurt in Mongolia, near the Altai Mountains. That’s in summer, of course, when you need only one coat. In winter the yurt is disassembled and the family moves into a “regular house”, as the father, Nurgaiv, describes the modest shack.
Aisholpan comes across as calm, thoughtful, loving and respectful — there’s a beautiful stillness to her, and no iPhone in sight — but also as a girl who likes chatting with her schoolfriends. She attends a boarding school five days a week. When at home, she helps with the livestock.
She does well at school and hopes to become a doctor. But her teen dream is to follow in the footsteps of her father and become an eagle hunter. Her living paternal grandfather was one, too: indeed it goes back 12 generations in her family. All of them, however, were men.
“It is not a choice,’’ Nurgaiv says. “It is a calling that has to be in our blood.’’ He backs his daughter with love, tenderness and confidence in her abilities, despite some local unhappiness about her plans. That is one of the wonders of the film: it is a father-daughter story that touches the heart. Her mother backs her, too. “It’s a woman’s right to choose,’’ she says.
It’s important to read the phrase eagle hunter the right way. They don’t hunt eagles. They train golden eagles — massive birds with a wingspan of up to 2m — to hunt for them, mainly foxes for their fur and meat.
First, though, they have to catch an eagle, and this is where there’s a nice story behind the film. Young New York-based British director Otto Bell arrived in Mongolia with a cameraman friend and tracked down Aisholpan and her father just as they were preparing to abduct an eaglet from its nest. They agreed to be filmed, and the result is spectacular.
Bell was inspired to make the film by a photograph of Aisholpan he spotted on a BBC website. He started the project with his own money. He soon ran out and was able to finish the film due only, once again, to good luck.
He emailed American filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, of Super Size Me fame, attaching a 10minute clip of what he had filmed. “And thank god, he opened it,’’ Bell said in one interview, “and wrote back that afternoon and said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this, come to my office, explain to me how I can help you finish this.’ ”
Spurlock is a producer, as is English actress Daisy Ridley (Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), who also was also won over by the footage. She also does the English narration that introduces and then interlinks the story.
Simon Niblett’s cinematography brings together the close relationship between the people and their beloved eagles (by custom the birds are returned to the wild after seven years). Shots of father and daughter on horseback, riding through deep snow, each with an imperious eagle on their right arm, are gorgeous. They remind us that there are other worlds within our own. The shots of eagles sweeping through the sky remind us there are worlds beyond ours.
Once she has her eagle trained, Aisholpan decides to enter the celebrated Golden Eagle Festival in the provincial capital of Olgii. She is laughed at and stared at by the men there, but not in a nasty way. They just think it’s silly. Her real challenge comes next: to go out into the snow and hunt a fox. This can take weeks.
Bell has been accused of fudging the story. Women in Mongolia have hunted with eagles for a long time, experts say. This seems to be true. I also think Bell over-eggs the idea that the local men were disgruntled by this feminist uprising. The edited shots of men in their yurts saying “No!” feel constructed. Indeed, Mongolia is known for its gender equality.
So perhaps the director has fudged it a bit, but his intention was to make a beautiful film about one girl from a place and a culture we know little about. That he has done. Aisholpan is real. Her personal story is true and I think anyone who sees it will leave the cinema feeling better about the world. Beauty and the Beast is an acted remake of Disney’s 1991 animated classic. Just doing this is a bold move, as the predecessor made history: it was the first animated film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar (the statuette went to another film about a brave woman and a beast, The Eagle Huntress, Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs). But Howard Ashman and Alan Menken did win Oscars for original score and original song.
Disney put a lot of money behind the new one, and hired a talented director in Bill Condon, who wrote and directed Dreamgirls (2006) and was Oscar-nominated for the script of Chicago (2002). My favourite Condon film is Gods and Monsters (1998), about the 1930s horror film master James Whale, which he wrote and directed, with Ian McKellen in the lead role.
I wish Condon had written this one too. The script is by American novelist Stephen Chbosky and screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos. The dialogue is good at times, quite witty and even a bit salacious for a Disney film (more on that soon), but there are flat spots.
The best characters are, like the original, not actors on screen. They are the staff at the prince’s castle who are transformed into household objects: the dashing butler who becomes a cool candelabra (Ewan McGregor), the unctuous steward turned into an overwound clock (McKellen), the composer who is now a harpsichord (Stanley Tucci) and the maid mutated into a pink featherduster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). And then there’s the hardest role of all, because she’s following Angela Lansbury: Emma Thompson as the cook who becomes a teapot.
The civilised argy-bargy between them is fun. When the beauty, Belle (English actress Emma Watson), realises they have identities, she asks who the hairbrush used to be. “That’s just a hairbrush,’’ the candelabra Lumiere says with a laugh.
Belle is in the prince’s castle because her father Maurice (a fine Kevin Kline) is imprisoned there. The prince, who we meet at the start as an arrogant young man, has been turned into a “hideous beast” by an enchantress he mocked. The same spell also led to the staff changes. In one room there is a red rose under glass. If the Beast (English actor Dan Stevens) does not win someone’s love before the final petal falls, he will be a monster forever.
Stevens, known from Downtown Abbey, is commanding as the hairy, horned, cranky recluse who likes to read Shakespeare. It’s the Shakespeare and other books in the castle library that appeal to Belle, whom one villager describes negatively as “beautiful but so wellread”. Here we have the girl-power element: can she overcome all the entrenched gender prejudices, and some of her own, to live freely?
She is pursued by handsome lothario Gaston (Welsh actor Luke Evans), who has an admiring sidekick, LeFou (Josh Gad). Too admiring for some. He clearly fancies Gaston, making him Disney's first gay character, which has seen the film banned in places such as Malaysia and Alabama. The back-and-forth between the two men, with a few double entendres, is a highlight. Both Gaston and LeFou are introduced characters, by the way, absent from the 18th-century French versions of the story.
There are some uplifting moments between Belle and the Beast, such as a snowball fight and a mutual flouting of soup-eating etiquette. The songs are splendid and the camerawork is attractive but overall there’s a lack of the tension that impels audiences to wonder what will happen next. That’s partly because we know. And personally I don’t think the Beast is anywhere near beastly enough.
SHOTS OF FATHER AND DAUGHTER RIDING THROUGH SNOW, EACH WITH AN EAGLE ON THEIR ARM, ARE GORGEOUS
above, and Dan Stevens with Emma Watson in Beauty and the Beast