The manipulation of childhood memories works just as well on the Average Joe as it does on those astute enough to see the real reason Disney continues to recycle their already existing classics, but with all the cartoon characters replaced by real humans and even more cartoony CGI creations. I know this because Beauty and the Beast is probably the Disney film I hold dearest to my heart, next to Alice in Wonderland, so when I learned that an ostensibly updated version would hit the big screen in 2017, I couldn’t bring myself to roll my eyes as aggressively as I did when a similar announcement was made about Dumbo and The Lion King – the latter of which is gonna be so different and original they didn’t bother recasting Mufasa.
Thankfully (if that is an apt word for it), I was still able to see the bad signs as they manifested. The trailers implied that it wasn’t really a “remake” so much as it was a re-skin – with special thanks to my brother for the term – and the purportedly improved visuals looked either corny or awkward. I ultimately had two mutually exclusive questions: “What exactly are you adding/fixing in this fairy tale that justifies it being remade?” and “If all you’re doing is remake the film shot-for-shot, scene-for-scene, song-for-song but with ‘better graphics’, why?” Of course I realize that the answer is probably member berries and money, but let’s see what has been put forth anyway!
We join Belle (Emma Watson, cursed to forever be typecast as the most beautiful woman alive), an inventor’s daughter and bibliophile who astonishes her fellow villagers with her beauty but turns them away with her anachronistic book-smarts and the fact that her father is the town loon Maurice (Kevin Kline). In spite of this, she is eyed by a suave hunter named Gaston, the chauvanistic town hero who, as you’re well aware if you’ve heard the songs, has biceps to spare and uses antlers in all his decorating.
You know how the rest goes too, I’m assuming. Maurice becomes lost in the woods, Belle finds him locked up in a secluded fortress ruled by a horrific Beast (Dan Stevens), who was made that way ages ago by an enchantress for his superficial ways, and vows to take her father’s place in the Beast’s captivity. Living in the castle, Belle befriends the Beast’s enchanted servants, as we learn that the spell will be broken if she can learn to love the Beast, before the magical rose his room withers, in spite of his monstrous appearance – for true beauty is found within. Turned into various household objects for daring to obey a spoiled snot, the servants of the castle are Ewan McGregor as Lumière the candelabra, Ian McKellen (who’s clearly having a blast) as Cogsworth the mantel clock, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts the teapot, Stanley Tucci as a cembalo that wasn’t in the original film, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the feather duster, under-used Audra McDonald as a walking closet, et cetera.
To discuss the characters in general, I was made skeptical by the promo clips and proven right by the finished product. The strength and emotional range of the animated Belle is rarely displayed by her live-action duplicate (for which they try to compensate by giving her more adventerous things to do, even though that’s not the problem) and Dan Stevens’ Beast does not hold the same wrath or intimidating presence as that of the original. As for the enchanted objects looking unexpressive, kind of eerie, and more like they belong in an advanced Annoying Orange short as opposed to a live-action picture show, I’d prefer not to make any comments beyond that.
That said, you can’t fault the actors for evidently having a good time with the material. Gaston in this version is played by Luke Evans, and he enjoys what he does to such an extent that you can excuse his singing voice. Gaston’s right-hand-oaf LeFou is portrayed by Josh Gad and he entertains even when he isn’t really funny.
I don’t need to remind anyone that the film is very much indeed a re-do of the Disney movie rather than any sort of unique take on Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont‘s fable. However, it does lift elements from other iterations of the fairy tale. The Beast, for instance, with an appearance that seems to have been achieved mainly through practical effects and makeup, closely resembles Ron Perlman‘s Vincent from the Beauty and the Beast TV drama. It’s not a great effect, though, and it looks like they made an attempt to make The Beast more “handsome-looking”, which (A) misses the point of the story completely, (B) didn’t actually work, and (C) is a horrifying thing to contemplate no matter how accepting I’ve become of the notion that furries exist.
The musical numbers are as underwhelming in how they’re staged as in how they’re shot, which is rooted in the same problem as the character designs and the overall look of the film; you cannot replicate the energy or exaggerations of 2D animation with 3D tools or real-life actors. It often seems as if there wasn’t even an effort to do so; the musical scenes in this movie would be boring to watch even if I didn’t have a superior animation to compare it to. The “Gaston” song is filmed on a cramped set with uncertain extras and the cinematography and imagery during “Belle” wouldn’t seem out-of-place in a Saturday Night Live skit that parodies the fact that this was made (“Be Our Guest” is the number that succeeds the most, in my opinion). The editing is equally tactless.
Its dull look can also be explained by the fact that it employs the same blue-ish filter that just about every other Hollywood production uses these days in what is commonly thought to be a misguided attempt to make movies look more realistic. To quote a recent Cracked article about how modern blockbusters appear remarkably colorless: “At its darkest parts, the cartoon was still vivid … Even at its brightest parts, the new movie is muted and sad-looking. Because according to Disney, if you suck out the color, the cursed man-beast is suddenly grounded and authentic.”
Although I will not go so far as to call Beauty and the Beast dreadful, I am at a loss. I cannot think of any reason why this is better than the film it uses as a template (give or take the odd bit of filler). As I’ve noted, it’s not the characters or the images and it’s certainly not its efforts to be more relevant by having a few kernels of modern-day gender politics in there (they traded the montage where Belle teaches Beast how to read with a scene where he condescendingly explains Shakespeare to her). Alan Menken‘s songs are not necessarily made better by having Howard Ashman‘s witty lyrics replaced by slightly different ones by Tim Rice either. It does explain why the woods are snowy in the summer and why the peasants seem oblivious to the spell, and we also get a darker climax but that’s about it.
If you’re going to teach a new generation of viewers a valuable lesson about love, appearances, and other stuff they won’t actually remember, may I insist you instead show them a similarly titled 1991 movie with more heart, depth, energy, and color that wasn’t made solely because theatrical re-releases are less profitable in the age of home video, streaming, and piracy? And no, it doesn’t answer any unsettling questions about which people affected by the spell can still age and which objects truly used to be human as opposed to being sentient furniture with no purpose or ability to scream.
I suppose Cogsworth was right. If it’s not baroque, don’t fix it.