The centuries-old fairytale of Beauty and the Beast is a story of transformative love, and of learning to see someone’s inner beauty, that ends in a blessed matrimony with a handsome prince. As such, it was virtually tailor-made for Disney. The studio’s 1991 film remains arguably the greatest of its animated works, somehow managing to adhere to a rigid musical formula while injecting atmosphere, deep characterization (especially for its heroine), and beautifully written, funny, and intelligent songs. It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that Bill Condon’s new live-action remake is also a swooning romance. Here is a film that truly only has eyes for the 1991 Beauty and the Beast; unfortunately, this reverence makes for a far unholier union.
The recent Disney remake formula is a simple one: Take a beloved animated tale (say, Cinderella or The Jungle Book), cast some big-name celebrities, and then dial the opulence factor up to 11, turning a film everyone remembers into a grand, if somewhat hollow, homage for a new generation. There’s nothing particularly outrageous about retelling or reimagining these stories. But this 2017 edition of Beauty and the Beast feels particularly egregious, in part, because it’s so slavishly devoted to the original; every time it falls short of its predecessor (which is quite often), it’s hard not to notice.
For a film that feels like a shot-for-shot remake at times, Beauty and the Beast is also surprisingly long, running a hefty 129 minutes to the original’s 84. That’s mostly because Condon and the screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos have added in several soupçons of backstory and a few extra songs, just to give things more of a blown-out feeling. The prologue, told as a series of stained-glass vignettes in the animated film, has been turned into an extravagant ball scene, with the posh, entitled Prince (Dan Stevens) raging the night away with his courtiers.
I sat up straight in my seat at this hilariously sumptuous sight, something right out of the court of Louis XIV. Condon, who once focused on gentle biopics about sexuality and intimacy (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey), has since become a purveyor of lavish ridiculousness (Dreamgirls, Twilight: Breaking Dawn), and there’s many a moment in Beauty and the Beast where he’s trying to have fun. But the Prince is quickly turned into a Beast for his arrogance, of course, and his servants are transformed into anthropomorphic appliances alongside him, quickly locking viewers into the story they know so well.
In a nearby village, Belle (Emma Watson) is a bookish and beautiful girl doting on her inventor father Maurice (Kevin Kline) and batting away the repeated marriage proposals of a puffed-up suitor, Gaston (Luke Evans). She sings (thinly) of “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” hoping to escape her provincial life. Gaston, meanwhile, boasts about how handsome and tough he is to his simpering dogsbody LeFou (Josh Gad). His eponymous number is probably the standout of the film, with Evans the only performer who really captures the exaggerated vibe of the cartoon he’s trying to inhabit.
Soon enough, Belle’s father ends up imprisoned in the Beast’s dungeons for trespassing, and she nobly takes his place, meeting the colorful cast of servants who have been turned into household items. Now the fun begins, right? Not so much. “Be Our Guest,” the Busby Berkeley-esque showstopper that sees Lumière (Ewan McGregor) serve dinner in a magical musical fashion, becomes a cacophonous and forgettable blur of visual effects. The new renderings of the servants are still animated, but there’s a blocky, lifeless quality to them. The efforts to make the walking clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) or the friendly teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) feel like realistic bits of décor also cost the characters their expressiveness.
The same goes for the Beast himself, a CGI/motion-capture creation that obscures the usually charming Stevens (so arresting in 2014’s The Guest), halting any chance at real chemistry with Belle. Stevens makes some effort to bring a little humor to the Beast’s quieter moments, and Watson similarly strives to layer humanity into her broad, archetypal role, but there’s only so much they can do. The whole romance feels dull and inevitable. They can’t disguise the sense that the film is going through the motions, making sure it hits its marks and repeats all the emotional crescendos of its forbear.
Each of the unforgettable songs by the composer Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman (the brilliant lyricist of Disney’s early-’90s renaissance) is here, plus a few new ones (with lyrics by Tim Rice) that land with a thud alongside them. These added songs are meant to deepen each character’s backstory, much like the occasional flashbacks that are sprinkled in (apparently Belle’s mother suffered from the plague in Paris). But the rest of the film’s attempts to mirror the animated original just make the new scenes feel horribly incongruous.
Perhaps Condon and company could have followed the example of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. That film was a remake in the more classical sense, tipping its cap to all the major moments of the Disney classic but going with a very different plot. With the new Beauty and the Beast, Disney has ripped a jewel out of its casing and set it in something far more elaborate; the effect is garish rather than nostalgic, frustrating rather than memorable. It will serve to remind you of the glory days of the past, but as its own pleasant viewing experience, Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is sadly lacking.
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