By Andrew Haas
I’ve gone on record with disdain for Disney’s remaking its animated library. To be fair, last year’s The Jungle Book did open my eyes to the potential of these new interpretations, but not by much. The remake I was by far the least excited for was that of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. Not only does that film usually rank among the greatest Disney movies, but it was the first in the medium of animation to earn a Best Picture nomination. With that much acclaim backing it up, what could this new film offer outside of using real sets and actors? Could it prove itself as more than just an obvious cash grab? Well, I can think of two words to describe this film after seeing it: “pretty” and “pointless.”
Belle, played by Emma Watson, is an intelligent woman who is viewed by her town as an outcast. But when her father winds up captive in an enchanted castle ruled by a beast, played by Dan Stevens, she offers to take his place. During her stay, she starts to form a connection with the creature, making him wonder if she may even be the one to free him from the spell cast upon him and his staff.
Of all the live action remakes Disney has done, this appears to be the most faithful to its source. With that said, it’s also a prime example of how faithfulness can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, there is a novelty to seeing our favorite cartoon characters and stories come to life. Director Bill Condon and the production team certainly have a keen eye for detail as they translate the drawings into gorgeous sets, backgrounds, and costumes. The village is very lively and the castle is both beautiful and haunting. I could tell a lot of planning went into bringing such a memorable tale into the real world.
On the other hand, such a novelty can only be enjoyed for so long before one has to ask, “What else have you got?” As cool as it is to see these moments recreated in live action, that’s all they are: recreations. Whereas Jungle Book balanced nostalgia with new ideas and Cinderella (2015) attempted to put more focus on the lives of the romantic leads, this film copies the original down to all the musical numbers. I sat through the movie wondering why I was watching it when I’d already seen it through the animated film. Granted, the makers do attempt to expand upon certain aspects of the classic that were either ignored or glanced over. In all fairness, some additions are neat, like Belle wanting to know about her mother or the living objects being at risk of turning inanimate. But the rest, including a scene involving a teleporting book, wind up having no point and the pacing suffers a little because of them. Even during the songs, there are random breaks in between verses that don’t really enhance them as much as interrupt their flow. I’m fine with added details, but not at the cost of charm.
On top of that, some of what worked in the original doesn’t translate to live action as well as others. While the “Be Our Guest” sequence recaptures most the magic, the iconic ballroom scene is incredibly underwhelming here. The new designs for the servant objects range from creative, like Cogsworth, to unintentionally creepy, like the dresser. I was excited to see how they would bring the wonderful animalistic design of the beast to life. What I got was something that may as well have been makeup, because the CGI, while sometimes slightly convincing, often looks like something out of a video game. I appreciate how hard everyone’s trying with this, but I remember getting more out of the actions and expressions the animators put into the characters of the original film than I did with the new one.
In terms of the characters themselves, they got some fantastic actors to play these parts, but I have mixed feelings on how they’re handled in this version. The ones who got the best treatments were Maurice, Gaston, and LeFou. Kevin Kline’s portrayal of Belle’s father is the only one that feels like a unique and interesting update from the original. His first scene with Belle had me hooked on their family relationship and had some of the best visual storytelling. Luke Evans is clearly having fun playing Gaston and I like the idea of him being a war hero instead of just a popular hunter. From the beginning, I thought Josh Gad was a great choice for LeFou, though the much-hyped homosexuality aspect doesn’t amount to much. I enjoyed the actors playing the servants and they stay true to what made the characters so lovable. Just to nitpick though, Ewan McGregor’s accent for Lumiere sounded a bit fake.
Then there are the main leads, Belle and Beast (he still doesn’t have a name). Emma Watson does a fairly good job with her role, which is more than I can say about her singing. Not to say she’s bad at it, but there’s little to no passion to her voice, making her sound like she’s practicing her melodies at best and auto-tuned at worst. As for Dan Stevens, while I don’t like how he looks as a beast, he does try to add a couple new layers to the character. I’ll admit, I like how the two bond over their love of books, which gives them more compatible traits here than in the animated film. It’s just too bad that that’s the most chemistry I ever get out of them; for the rest of the time, they seem to be going through the motions as if they’re being dictated by the original film. I wouldn’t mind as much if their performances were as strong as those of voice talents Paige O’Hara and Robby Benson, but in the end, they’re just decent.
I’m honestly having a hard time deciding on whether or not I’d recommend the new Beauty and the Beast. Don’t get me wrong: this version isn’t as bad, as I highly admire the production design, the actors do well, and some of the recreations and additions are nice. It’s a serviceable alternative at best. However, I can’t get over how little this film tries to be its own thing with only padding to differentiate itself. Maybe if I had seen this before the original I would enjoy it more, but there are so many things that version did so well that I thought were taken for granted in this one. Anyone just wanting to see a classic with a different coat of paint will like this fine, maybe even love it. But for those looking for a fresh take on a tale as old as time, don’t bother. If the original animated film is a grand Broadway spectacle, the remake is the high school production that tries to give everyone more to do. Sure, there’s clearly talent and effort both onstage and behind the curtain, but it only reminds me how much I want to see the Broadway performance again.