Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures
Beauty and the Beast joins the long list of Disney animated classics remade for live action, but it may be the most beloved classic on the list. As it turns out, that is both its blessing and curse, although it takes longer than it should for the real blessings to kick in.
The 1991 version isn't quite a tale as old as time, but it has been justly adored for 26 years. As such, recreating it should be almost impossible to get wrong, especially with veteran musical director Bill Condon in charge, Emma Watson as an even more independent Belle, and Alan Menken reworking his old classic songs and adding a few new ones. Yet for a good while, all the new Beauty and the Beast does is remind us of how the animated version did things better, at least until the elements that are an actual improvement finally shine through.
The set up is the same as decades ago, as an arrogant prince picks the wrong hag/sorceress to shun and becomes a literal beast for it. Years later, the neighboring village does its fair share of shunning against bookworm/inventor Belle, with the exception of her father and the far too pushy local hero Gaston. But Belle's provincial life seems to end in a way even she couldn't have imagined, once her father stumbles onto the Beast's castle and she insists on taking his place as his prisoner. However, their hostile relationship must thaw into love very soon if the Beast and his servants/magical household items are ever to be human again.
For all the supposed horror of the Beast's monstrous form, he is never more terrifying than when his human self appears in ghastly makeup for his opening party. That prologue sets the tone early on, as Condon goes all out with extravagant costumes, dances and special effects in the opening minutes, although it was never really necessary for the original.
A more ominous tone is set with the first iconic opening number, at least for those who remember the 1991 version. "Belle" is the first song that would have worked much better if the original never cast such a long shadow, and it sadly isn't the last. While it is always good to hear these famous tunes, there's no getting around that they were already composed and sung perfectly before.
Condon wrote the big screen Chicago and directed the big screen Dreamgirls, so he is no stranger to updating and recreating classic songs. With Menken composing these ones again, there is even less of an excuse for this not to work. Yet the music and vocals of the past just can't be matched by the present, which is sure to make many wonder why they still tried anyway.
With a few exceptions, there's very little that even Menken and the cast can do to improve or match perfection. The cast part is a greater concern in some places, and it is sad to say that Watson is among them.
Some have already surely mocked that this is the second musical in the last few months led by an Emma who can't belt like a Broadway/Disney musical star. But La La Land worked around Emma Stone's singing limitations and ultimately let her sing powerfully enough to clinch her Oscar, yet something like Beauty and the Beast requires much more singing power. Condon works around Watson's vocal limitations as well, but it never should have been necessary to do so.
Leaving the singing aside, casting Hermione Granger herself as Belle should have been impossible to mess up, yet it is a bit of a missed opportunity early on. Although this is an even more free thinking and feminist Belle than her predecessor, they pretty much gloss over her newfound inventing skills, her desire to help other little girls become educated, and the town's hatred of her ambitions in a blink-and-you'll-miss it snippet, limiting Watson's chances to show a Hermione like fire and personality in the opening act. Considering how mindless hatred of such women has had rather devastating consequences lately, it is even sadder how they don't truly follow through on this new angle.
There is another accidental but unavoidable parallel to make with today's times, as too much of this village also worships a vain, egotistical, backwards thinking, poofy haired, arrogant man in red with barely concealed prejudices, thoughtless but dangerous fury, and sycophants who don't know that they deserve better. But at least in this case, it is actually meant to be fun to watch, and the fun of watching Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as Lefou carries Beauty and the Beast through some choppy waters.
The other downside to casting Watson is that we've already seen her play a fearless, book loving young woman for almost a decade. In contrast, Evans has never played a character like Gaston on the big screen before, or done much of anything besides play a humorless brood in the likes of the Hobbit movies, Fast and Furious 6 and The Girl on the Train. Yet he is actually allowed to shatter that image, show off perhaps the best singing voice of the whole main cast, and then chillingly turn into an unhinged psychotic who can't deal with being rejected for once.
Gad is in more familiar territory as a Disney sidekick, only in live action this time instead of voicing Frozen's beloved snowman. However, Gad's Lefou has already gone down in controversial infamy when Condon outed him as gay, although they wait until literally the last second to show it and barely address it. For all this much ado about almost nothing on screen, much like with Sulu having a husband last summer, it overshadows Gad's delightful comic work alongside Evans and Lefou's newfound struggles with Gaston's growing madness.
Even once Beauty and the Beast arrives at the Beast's castle, one can't help but wait impatiently for Evans and Gad to come back, especially when they make "Gaston" the first iconic song to almost match the original. In the meantime, the real and canon love story of the film brings about more mixed results, albeit results that ultimately lean in the movie's favor.
Belle and the Beast's love story has long been criticized or mocked as a less than progressive tale of Stockholm Syndrome, and perhaps that won't really change this time. Nonetheless, the best thing about a nearly 40-minute longer Beauty and the Beast is that there's more time to show Belle and the Beast getting along, finding a legitimate connection and thawing each other's hearts. It also helps that Watson comes to life the most when clashing with the Beast, and gets to show more emotional range as loathing turns to friendship and finally love.
As for the Beast himself, he is the biggest CGI achievement of the movie, even if that might not be the biggest accomplishment. The household servants are now all live action CGI too, although their 1991 hand drawn selves show far more life and real emotion in almost every way. This is especially true in "Be Our Guest" where no amount of computer wizardry can match the show the 1991 Lumiere and company put on, and where even Ewan McGregor's soaring vocals can't erase the memories of Jerry Orbach's.
McGregor, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson's voices are the most redeeming qualities of the staff by far, barely canceling out their inferior visuals and the almost nightmarish ones of the castle's wardrobe and piano. Given that the last Disney remake was an Oscar winning visual landmark in The Jungle Book, this step backwards is more disappointing, although it is no surprise that Condon is no Jon Favreau in these areas.
But while the new Lumiere, Cogsworth and company barely have faces or eyes anymore, the Beast fortunately still has them. While the computers and Dan Stevens combine to give the Beast a fully formed performance, there are still a few moments where the Beast’s CGI form can’t hold a candle to his more expressive animated predecessor.
Still, Stevens comes as close as anyone likely could to giving the Beast a damaged but growing soul under the computers and autotuned fury. Most importantly, he and Watson show the hot tempered yet ultimately gentle rapport to make Belle and the Beast’s connection work, whether or not it really brushes aside their relationship’s less romantic messages. As for vocals, Stevens walks a fine line with his baritone in the new song “Evermore”
Despite being over two hours long, Beauty and the Beast almost rushes through its opening act, perhaps all too well at a few points. It slows down to really stretch out Belle and the Beast’s time together, which may cause some to feel it is all too dragged out with unnecessary filler.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to help the film breathe, forge as much of its own identity as it can under the circumstances, and to finally help the movie find its own footing. Along the while, Menken adds songs that didn’t make it into the original, and proves that the titular “Beauty and the Beast” number remains fool proof.
By the time a fully monstrous Gaston charges into the castle, and by the time a supposed death scene is made even longer, Beauty and the Beast manages to recover from its early stumbles. Even so, it isn’t quite a complete recovery.
The original Beauty and the Beast was a progressive and original milestone for Disney in the context of 1991, but is perhaps less so in today’s era of Frozen, Zootopia and Moana. As such, this update is caught in limbo, as it recreates the beats of the past and tries to mix in more timely and meaningful themes for its new audience. But in practice, it brushes aside its newfound messages and can’t hold a candle to its old delights more than it should.
Nostalgia for the past, the scene stealing of Evans, Gad, McGregor, McKellen, Thompson and Kevin Kline, the more fleshed out Belle/Beast relationship and the work between Watson and Stevens still manages to get Beauty and the Beast over the hump. Yet in the end, it is more likely that viewers will rush to re-watch the old edition well before going back to the new one, which was harder to claim for The Jungle Book and Cinderella remakes.
Beauty and the Beast is still too timeless to get completely wrong, with old elements that still have some charm even when they’re not first rate, and new elements that have their delights when they really work. While this is enough to get the remake to a 6 and a passing grade on the TMN.com scale, generosity and nostalgia for the superior version may vary, or help to cause greater disappointment.