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.