Bill Condon’s live-action Beauty and the Beast is not the abomination of desolation its detractors feared and not the shining beacon its boosters hoped for. This is almost part of the problem. 2017’s Beauty and the Beast is perfectly standard studio filmmaking, a known property given a slick sheen with an absolutely charming cast as well as any hope for innovation or soul sacrificed at the financial needs a project like this demands.
I hardly have to recall the story for you here, so familiar is the French fairytale of the Beauty and the Beast. A prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed and turned into a horrible beast in order to learn a lesson about compassion. He and his castle will remain cursed until he learns to love. A young girl, Belle, (Emma Watson) is taken prisoner to save her father (Kevin Kilne) and then grows to love the Beast.
It’s a story so familiar that it’s already received two classic cinematic versions (Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version and the 1991 animated Disney version upon which this is based). So, this remake isn’t necessarily without precedent, but at this point it already has a decidedly uphill battle to carve out space.
That battle comes all the more difficult when you keep into mind the demands that Disney has placed with this version.
Do not mistake me for a detractor of the live-action remake that so seems to dominate the Disney schedule these days. I put Pete’s Dragon in my top 10 last year and I was a great admirer of The Jungle Book and Cinderella. I think that the approach of great filmmakers being given the space to carve out their own versions of these classic tales is an ingenious one, especially with the weight that Disney can throw around.
The problem here is that unlike those versions, and indeed unlike the Best Picture-nominated previous version of Beauty and the Beast that this one is slavishly based on, Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is not given its space to carve out its own version. It is only allowed to add on to classic material. This film feels stifled under the weight of the story that it must tell, the story that Disney is reselling and knows that it can make more money than God by doing so.
Beauty and the Beast feels like the confirmed fears of everyone who has shot down these remakes over the last few years, a mindless cash-in that simply reenacts rather than recreates or reconfigures. It’s one of those magazine shoots where actors dress up in costume from classic film and everyone Oohs and Awes and moves on. There’s nothing new here, the weight is your own personal reaction to “Beauty and the Beast” being sung in a ballroom or Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) belting the strains of “Be Our Guest.”
Perhaps I would feel more charitable if the material as it exists was handled particularly well. I say particularly because any film with this much talent and money behind the camera isn’t going to be a disaster. And it isn’t.
All the design is there and suitably lavish. Primary colored costumes and styling that recalls the animated version. Castles and sets that look like the 1991 version as directed by Guillermo del Toro (which I do mean as a compliment). Your effects really do work well, even if they’re not quite as expressive as hand-drawn animation. Everything looks clean and right and absolutely just-so.
Your cast does exactly what’s expected of them, performing their parts without making any waves or stepping on any toes. Emma Watson’s Belle is suitably intelligent and kind, even if she never quite locks into the toughness that she brought to Hermione. Dan Stevens’ Beast is complex and more thoughtful in this version, though his natural charm is stifled under the motion-capture creature he spends most of his time acting through. Ewan McGregor is a suitably charming Lumiere, Ian McKellen is a suitably grumpy Cogsworth, but I have no earthly idea Emma Thompson was thinking with the cockney accent on Mrs. Potts.
The only real highlight here is the villain team of Gaston (Luke Evans) and Le Fou (Josh Gad). Evans is a total delight as the macho idiot Gaston, playing him as suitably sinister while keeping the kind of charm that makes you see why the people of this provincial town might fall for him. Gad is the only one who feels like he’s making a new character, his Le Fou (who is, yes, clearly gay) is more of a full character, his relationship with Gaston has a push and a pull this time that’s way more interesting. Plus, Evans and Gad definitely are the two who have the most fun in their musical numbers. Up until now, I had no idea how much I wanted to see tough guy Luke Evans in even more musicals, but even a film this safe can teach you something new.
Speaking of, I have to say that the musical numbers in this film are something of a disappointment, especially considering Condon’s aptitude for lavishness and elaborate staging. It’s not on anyone’s singing, everyone is basically fine to great (Audra McDonald, Ewan McGregor, and Luke Evans make great with Josh Gad and Dan Stevens close behind). Most just feel oddly-staged, more resembling a theater version than anything particularly cinematic. There’s an energy and a vitality that’s simply gone, going through the motions like a small-town theater in their third month of performance. Bizarrely, Condon handles the non-musical segments with more interest than the musical bits.
The most classic scene here, the ballroom dance between Belle and her Beast, is perhaps the scene which suffers the most in transition. The 1991 scene is still a classic of animation, a gorgeous and sweeping bit of romance that felt genuinely innovative. This one is a pale imitation, never quite finding that movie magic, that extra that sends it over the top into something worth creating in its own right.
And yes, I hate excessive comparisons to the original, but Beauty and the Beast particularly invites them. This is a nostalgia project, seizing on your reactions and your fond memories. It does add new material, but this material is perhaps the most lacking part of the whole endeavor.
Extra backstory that is not needed (why must we know what happened to Belle’s mother?) and songs from the stage version that never come close to matching the clear classics in the mix (minus “Forevermore,” a ballad for the Beast that Dan Stevens belts the hell out of) all feel like they’re simply here to pad out the running time. The closest this stuff comes to feeling vital is when it adds additional context and time onto the romance between Belle and the Beast, but was that worth an almost extra hour of running time? Especially when that extra running time is so murderous to the film’s pacing? Beauty and the Beast adds all that to sacrifice any sense of grace, you feel every minute of the two hours this film runs.
Like I said, and despite all I’ve followed up with, Beauty and the Beast isn’t particularly awful. Your material is handled fine all around, but that’s the problem. What needs to excel is fine. What needs to be fine doesn’t work. Almost no one is definitive, nothing really feels fresh or new.
None of what I say here matters of course. This is a bulletproof movie that will make a billion dollars and plenty of people happy whether it’s particularly innovative or not. I acknowledge that. I’m just questioning why we so needed this version, and why it wasn’t allowed to unfurl its own wings.
We already have a classic told within recent memory. Why settle?