Over the course of my life I have probably seen Disney’s animated version of Beauty and the Beast at least a dozen times. I love it, even to this day. The stunning animation, voice acting and songs hold up remarkably well. The film was groundbreaking for its time and remains a watershed moment for the infamous Mouse House.
Thus, despite a voice in my head that kept quietly urging, “No, don’t do it,” I looked upon Disney’s live-action remake of the “tale as old as time” with hungry anticipation, like a dopey mouse who has eyes on a succulent slab of cheese. I purchased tickets well in advance of the film’s opening weekend and took up humming Alan Menken’s immortal score in the shower. I kept thinking to myself, “Oh yeah, this is going to be great,” pushing aside my awareness of the immense corporate machinery at work behind the scenes. Of course, the film wasn’t great or even all that good. It was merely adequate, an effective enough iteration that hits all the major points of the animated classic.
Beauty and the Beast’s story is so well-known that summarizing the plot feels silly, but I will do it anyway cause I like to feel crazy. Belle (Harry Potter’s Emma Watson) is a young woman living a self-professed “provincial life” with her crackpot father Maurice (Kevin Kline) in rural France. She is intelligent, ambitious and a bookworm, ostracizing qualities when living in the 18th century.
Belle is also the object of Gaston’s (Luke Evans) affection. A former soldier who, as we soon hilariously learn, is “especially good at expectorating” and considers himself “roughly the size of a barge,” Gaston is a total meathead, whose good looks belie ugly self-absorption. Belle wants none of his attentions, instead desiring to escape her backwater circumstances. “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere,” she warbles at one point. “I want it more than I can tell.”
This wish comes true when the bumbling Maurice gets himself lost in the woods one night. Seeking shelter, the old fool stumbles across a castle that is home to the Beast, a disgraced aristocrat who, years ago, was transformed into a hulking monster as punishment for his cruelty and vanity. Now a vindictive recluse, the Beast immediately hurls the blue-haired crackpot into a cell as punishment for trespassing. Soon after this, a worried Belle follows her father to the castle and offers to remain there in his place. Her brash decision is viewed by the castle’s similarly-transfigured servants – including the candelabra Lumière (Ewan McGregor), the clock Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellen) and the teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) – as a way to break the spell, a feat which can only be accomplished if the Beast learns to love someone else and earns their love in return.
Working from a script by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, director Bill Condon gets this elaborate fairy tale up and running with ease. Belle’s milieu comes to life with flashes of color and snatches of song, and the film’s big opening number, the aptly-titled “Belle,” communicates volumes about the film’s town and its titular beauty. Condon stages these introductory moments with confidence and a necessary reverence for the source material. But he also introduces novel, modernizing touches, particularly the characterization of Gaston’s loyal sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad), whose subservience to Gaston is here paired with blatant, unrequited affection.
The film’s momentum begins to lag when the action transitions to the Beast’s castle and grounds. The nostalgic reverence intrinsic to a project like this starts to gradually become onerous, with many scenes, beats and moments inviting unfavorable comparisons rather than standing strongly on their own. New flourishes – such as a detail about Belle’s mother dying from the plague – don’t really connect the way that LeFou’s expanded characterization does. Instead, they feel inessential and vague, bogging the story down.
Menken’s score is still a highlight during this flabbier section, with the music and lyrics being a joy to listen to. There is inconsistency, however, in their execution. The beer hall song “Gaston” is probably one of the most successful, benefiting from strong interplay between the actors. Conversely, “Be Our Guest” works better in animated form than live-action. Already clunky and unnatural looking, the CGI that brings the transfigured Lumière, Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts to life becomes even more obvious under the harsh, hallucinogenic lighting that accompanies this piece. While the animated take on this song featured similarly aggressive pyrotechnics, it was never as abrasive. This version feels like a particularly unhinged riff on Cirque du Soleil – except, instead of being awed, you just want it to stop.
Dodgy aesthetics are not limited to the songs. Condon’s realization of the magical castle is woefully limited in scope – that is, much of the interior is lost due to murky cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler and uninspired production design by Sarah Greenwood. There is also something dreadfully off about the film’s clarity – at least in my particular theater. Each time Condon and Schliessler perform elaborate camera movements, the frame takes on a bizarre, horrifying blurriness. This completely mars the impact of specific moments, such as the grandeur of the Beast revealing his library to a delighted Belle or the dance sequence set to the titular song “Beauty and the Beast.”From an acting standpoint, the film is also plagued with inconsistency. Dan Stevens makes for an appropriately gruff Beast, but there isn’t really the wit or charisma that was apparent in Robby Benson ‘s vocals from the 1991 original. Not that this is a particularly fair comparison, as Stevens is lost behind so much unconvincing CGI that probably nobody could make Beast feel all that authentic or expressive.
The actors behind the three main servants are similarly adequate albeit unremarkable. All of them are sidelined by the story, even more than they were in the animated movie. Of the trio, it is probably Ewan McGregor’s Lumière that stands out the most; although, as mentioned, the CGI at work is somewhat underwhelming, stymieing the character from having much emotional range. And, despite being one of the better singers in the film, McGregor is no Jerry Orbach, who gave life to the animated Lumière. His rendition of “Be Our Guest” is fine, but all it really made me want to do is scurry back home and dust off my copy of Moulin Rouge!
Considerably more effective is Luke Evans’ and Josh Gad’s characters, who are both antagonistic yet still strangely likable. As opposed to several other actors, it is immediately clear that both Evans and Gad actually come from singing backgrounds. Their big musical moments pop more than some of the other performances, and both actors seem to understand the larger-than-life dimensions of the characters.
Now, they aren’t perfect. Evans, for instance, instills his Gaston with the humorous absurdity of the character; but he doesn’t fully embody the malice and potential for violence as easily as the vocals of Richard White, leading to a feeling of deflation in key moments.
And as for the film’s leading lady? Well, Belle is certainly not going to go down as one of the defining Emma Watson roles, at least not in regards to character complexity. Still, in many ways Watson is the ideal choice for Belle. Fiery, indomitable and whip-smart, Belle shares many Hermione Granger traits, the role that made Watson a star in the first place. Additionally, the semi-feminist contours of Belle are right up Watson’s alley, particularly considering her work as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations.
Of course, it would be more ideal casting if the feminism of the character was little more than empty posturing. Belle is a strong, progressive female character – but only in theory. For the most part, she doesn’t change throughout the story. Even worse, she ends up falling into a fairly traditionalist mold, transitioning from one male household to another. It’s difficult to understand exactly what drew Watson to the role aside from major dollar signs, and this is yet another example of how the live action rendition of Beauty and the Beast creates problems that weren’t there previously. Not to say that Belle’s character wasn’t always problematic, but Watson’s off-screen activities creates an additional distraction. Oh, and she also can’t really sing.
This isn’t a surprise, as every aspect of this adaptation of an adaptation was always destined to invite comparisons – both for good and ill. Here, most of these comparisons are for ill, highlighting that Disney’s relentless desire to remake their animated properties is a double-edged sword. It’s certainly a shrewd move financially; the movie will make billions by drawing in new kiddie fans and old, pathetic schmucks like me. Yet artistically, this version of Beauty and the Beast always had an impossible bar to reach. That’s what happens when you build a product so heavily on nostalgia. It’s an emotion that can fuel a piece of work, but it can also damn it. Basically, it’s a tricky thing. Nostalgia can push one to return to a tired story, but it can also prompt a more aggressive level of scrutiny. It’s hard, if not impossible, to truly go home again. This take on Beauty and the Beast certainly doesn’t get you there, and it also doesn’t stand apart as its own animal.