Bill Condon's Beauty and the Beast is the fourth entry in Disney's recent spate of live-action "reimaginings" of their older animated films, following Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella (2014), Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book (2016), and David Lowery's Pete's Dragon (2016). Condon's film differs quite substantially from the others, specifically in the fact that it does not in any substantial way improve on the animated version from 26 years ago. Disney has been smart to choose films that were not among their best (for example, despite its iconic status, 1950's Cinderella is one of the studio's most wooden efforts). Beauty and the Beast, on the other hand, is a risky first attempt to remake one of the studio's most beloved and critically acclaimed animated films as a live-action foray, and the result is mixed at best.
The screenplay by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter's War) follows Linda Woolverton's 1991 screenplay (which was, in turn, based on the French short story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont) fairly closely, adding in some additional detail and fleshing out a few characters, albeit not nearly to the extent that would justify an additional 45 minutes of running time. Most importantly, the live-action version maintains all of the songs originally penned by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, which were by far the original's strongest asset. Even more so than its immediate predecessor The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast's integration of big Broadway-style tunes into the narrative helped reshape our understanding and expectations of an animated musical, which is perhaps why is remains so beloved to this day despite some clear narrative shortcomings (just so you know, I'm in something of a minority in not ranking the animated original among my favorite Disney films, although I can see why people love it).
Yet, Condon's reimagining doesn't do enough to rectify the earlier film's problems to justify its existence, which renders it little more than a flashy, CGI-heavy cinematic version of a bad cover tune. Condon, who previously directed the 2006 film version of the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, gives the film plenty of energy, but virtually everything that is enjoyable about it, particularly the show-stopper musical numbers like "Belle" and "Be Our Guest," derive their pleasures directly from the animated version. There is nothing particularly new or exciting, unless the idea of seeing animated anthropomorphic household objects like teapots and clocks and wardrobes rendered as photorealistic characters counts as new and exciting (I found most of them to be effectively rendered, but also just a tad creepy, despite the studios efforts of talented actors like Emma Watson, Ewan McGregor, and Ian McKellen). Composer Alan Menken has returned to compose a few new songs with lyrics by Tim Rice (original lyricist Howard Ashman died shortly before the original film's release), but they don't reach the heights achieved by his earlier work. Instead, they just make the film longer.
The casting is mostly solid, with Emma Watson continuing to step successfully out of the shadows of the Harry Potter franchise that made her an international star, in the role of Belle, an intelligent, determined young woman in a small provincial French village who becomes the prisoner of the Beast (Dan Stevens). The Beast, who was once a handsome, self-absorbed prince, has been cursed by an enchantress for his narcissistic and cruel ways. The story goes that he must love and be loved before his 21st birthday or else the curse will be permanent. Looking more like a wildebeest than the original's cross between a lion and a wolf, the Beast's face is entirely computer-generated, which mostly works, but at other times betrays an artificiality that takes us out of the moment. At first raging with anger and resentment, he eventually reveals himself to be a young man with genuine heart-and-soul potential, quite the opposite of Gaston (Luke Evans), the village's resident number one bachelor who desires Belle if only because she does not desire him. Gaston was one of the original film's greatest creations, and the song "Gaston," sung by his fawning compatriot LeFou (Josh Gad), is a hilariously on-the-nose satire of misguided machismo. Evans acquits himself well, playing the beefy self-absorbed lunk with both humor and menace, and Gad (who previously voiced the snowman Olaf in Frozen) makes for an amusing counterpoint.
However, despite the good performances and robust songs, there isn't nearly enough here to justify all the time and effort and resources that went into it. Like the animated version, Condon's Beauty and the Beast continues to suffer from a fundamental character problem at its center, namely the virtuous Belle being simply too virtuous to be very interesting and the Beast's seething anger having almost no connection to his previous human existence. Thus, it is hard to see the film as anything more than the kind of cynical cash grab to capitalize on title familiarity that I had assumed was Disney's plan all along. Until now, I had been pleasantly surprised to be mistaken in my initial assessment, but Beauty and the Beast's overt familiarity and lack of daring suggests that the tide may have turned.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Walt Disney Pictures
Overall Rating: (2)
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