It was only a matter of time before Disney tapped Beauty and the Beast for the live-action treatment.
Twenty-six year ago, the film cemented the Disney Renaissance, once again heralding the studio as an animation force to be reckoned with. In adapting the film for 2017, director Bill Condon delivers pretty much the film you’d expect. This is the same Beauty and the Beast you remember, almost to a fault. It tries to marry the sights and sounds of the 1991 animated feature with the look and feel of a modern Broadway adaptation. Everything nominally looks and sounds the same, and when it clicks it’s truly dazzling. Still, something seems to have been lost in translation.
Emma Watson is our new Belle, the bookish daughter of scraggly tinkerer Maurice (Kevin Kline). Belle yearns for a life more exciting than the one guaranteed her in this small village in the French countryside. That excitement comes when her father is taken captive in the castle of a Beast (Dan Stevens). Belle offers to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner, and soon discovers the entire castle and its inhabitants have been cursed by an enchantress. Walking, talking household objects—Ewan McGregor as candelabra Lumière, Ian McKellan as clockwork majordomo Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson filling in for Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts—make Belle feel at home as she succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome and falls for the Beast. Meanwhile, the village’s own dashing brute, Gaston (Luke Evans), leads a campaign to find the Beast and rescue Belle so he can make her his own wife/hostage.
Two and a half decades of ironic deconstruction have taken some of the shine off this particular fairy tale. The screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos understands this, and fleshes out details and character motivations that simply wouldn’t fit in an 80-minute cartoon. We see firsthand how Belle’s attempts to make her village a better place are met with unanimous scorn, as well as how the Beast’s silver-spoon upbringing turned him into such a boorish turd. Education goes wholly unappreciated here, and it offers some unexpected laughs. The best comes during the big “Gaston” number when Gaston’s overly-articulate sidekick Le Fou (Josh Gad) begins spelling out Gaston’s name in song, realizes the company he’s in, and suddenly cops to being illiterate.
If nothing else, this Beauty and the Beast is proof that the songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are evergreen. They’re some of the best musical numbers ever produced, and seeing them get the big-budget treatment is an absolute delight. The only real misstep in the bunch is “Be Our Guest”, and its problems are indicative of the film as a whole. The song itself is fine, but a series of poor choices converge, turning the number into a dud.
For starters, there’s Ewan McGregor.
He’s the only cast member tasked with motion capture to bring his character to life, and it’s glaringly obvious. Lumière doesn’t move like the other animated characters, and combining the two styles in every scene creates a jarring effect. He’s also the film’s de facto comic relief whenever Josh Gad isn’t around, but the film doesn’t afford Lumière much in the way of sight gags, particularly because his visual design is so overly ornate. Gone is the golden candlestick with a goofy face, and in his place is a little bronze man whose hands and head are constantly on fire. It’s like something Guillermo del Toro would design to frighten children, only now he has to sing and dance and assure us that his life is not the waking nightmare it very clearly is. And finally, if we’re being honest here, McGregor’s performance is a flat approximation of Jerry Orbach’s brilliant turn in the original.
The “Be Our Guest” number feels more like an obligation this time around, a CGI whirlwind that struggles to capture the manic energy of the cartoon. That’s a feeling that fortunately doesn’t infect the rest of the film. In fact, pretty much any time we spend away from the Beast’s CGI-laden nightmare palace is a welcome relief. “Gaston” is a brash, boozy bar song that affords Josh Gad the opportunity to work a crowd like an MC, and the film’s big opener, “Belle”, feels like Bill Condon’s attempt to one-up the wonky staging that plagued Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods. These numbers are grand and vibrant, briefly lending the film a sense of vitality that the castle scenes fail to match.
For her part, Emma Watson is one of the film’s saving graces. Her take on Belle is quick-witted and fearless, not one to be easily strong-armed by doofuses like Gaston or the Beast. She’s a great match for the material, and has the musical chops to back it up. Opposite her, Dan Stevens (currently starring in FX’s Legion) has a fairly thankless role as the Beast. They pitch-shift his voice and warp his face with CGI, but the film so often keeps the character at arm’s length that at times the Beast seems lost in his own movie. Luke Evans is amusing as Gaston, but often feels oddly subdued; it’s almost as though he’s afraid to play the character too broadly. Josh Gad, on the other hand, plays Le Fou exactly as broadly as you’d expect. At times he seems to be the only one who realizes what kind of film he’s in, and occasionally eggs on his co-stars to step it up a notch.
On the whole, Beauty and the Beast does right by its ancestors. If you’re coming for the musical numbers, you’ll get what you paid for and then some. If you’re in it for the spectacle, there’s plenty of that too. If, however, you’re looking for another live-action home run a la The Jungle Book, you might come away disappointed. Beauty and the Beast is at times more bombastic than the animated film, and more subdued at others, almost as though they weren’t sure which moments were the big crowdpleasers. The film is certain to please most crowds, but this is one case where the Mouse simply cannot recapture the magic of the original.Liked This? Share It!