Whenever there’s news of a remake or reboot of an old and beloved movie, the reactions usually range from cautious optimism to some variation on “only when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.” In the case of Disney's live action Beauty and the Beast, it’s the movie itself to which those latter adjectives apply.
This isn't to say that the movie’s got nothing going on; if anything, it has too much going on. Padded out with 45 extra minutes, the movie's M.O. is to take everything in the original and crank it up from ten to twenty. There’s more magic, more backstory, more cutlery, more dance breaks, more everything. It feels like love up to a point, the way the best stories get embellished with time, but when the new songs come clunking to remind you of exactly what it takes to get a Best Original Song nomination (and how good the old songs are), the proceedings start to feel a little less genuine.
The story, as directed by Bill Condon, is mostly the same. An arrogant prince (Dan Stevens) is turned into a beast, and cursed to remain that way until he either learns how to love, or the last petal falls from an enchanted rose. His servants are turned into anthropomorphic household objects and left to suffer the same fate. When an old man (Kevin Kline) comes stumbling into his domain, he takes him prisoner, only to have his daughter, Belle (Emma Watson), come to his rescue, volunteering to take his place. Eventually, despite their differences, they fall in love.
Unfortunately, the more “real” the movie tries to make everything appear, the harder it becomes to ignore that the necessity to their falling in love isn’t particularly romantic. It works in a fairytale, but that’s not quite what this movie is, especially when it takes such pains to explain what happily went unsaid in its animated progenitor. Part of what was magical about it was that we were willing to suspend our disbelief. That feeling of wonderment is best captured in the simplest moments of the film, i.e. when we see the Disney logo — that purest emblem of childhood joy — accompanied by the “When You Wish Upon A Star” refrain, and when the main instrumental theme (the overture, if you will) kicks in every now and then.
Otherwise, magic isn't this movie’s strong suit. There are exactly two highs, one of which is its opening sequence. Instead of the abstract stained glass prologue, we get a fully fleshed-out look at the Prince’s court. With detailing that suggests we're seeing a story about the very last years of the French aristocracy (backed up by a throwaway guillotine gag later on), and the explicit note that the Prince has been taxing his subjects in order to hold his lavish parties as well as stacking his guest list with beautiful people (specifically beautiful girls, in the hopes of finding the one), the sequence leans hard into the near-sinister and strange.
Even as the proper story begins to play out, there are glimpses of the stranger — and much more interesting — movie that could have been. There's Gaston's (Luke Evans) suggested PTSD, there's the piano (Stanley Tucci) losing his keys and his human form regenerating without teeth as a result; even the misfortunes that befall Belle’s father play much darker here than they do in animated form. A frustrated Gaston ties him up and leaves him in the woods to be eaten by the wolves, and then, when he manages to return to town and confront Gaston for what he's done, he’s taken away by the keeper of the local asylum (played by Adrian Schiller, last seen in A Cure for Wellness, a movie that went all-in on being strange). But darkness and/or revisionism aren't what a movie like this is interested in.
It is, to return to an earlier point, interested in backstories, but the only one that actually lands is Gaston’s. While an awful chauvinist shouldn’t be the jewel in this tale's crown, Luke Evans handily walks away with the movie. Evans, and Josh Gad as Gaston’s sidekick, Lefou, are the only actors whose performances match how outsize the material naturally is. With real people cast in each of these parts, it’s easy to forget how odd and exaggerated pretty much everyone except Belle was in the original movie, but Evans and Gad keep that spirit — and that fun — alive. To wit, “Gaston” supplants “Be Our Guest” as the most exciting song in the film. As one of just a few numbers sung and danced by a chorus of people rather than household objects, it’s tangible. By contrast, “Be Our Guest” is a CGI-fest that rivals Trolls for how insane it becomes, but lacks any origin ality in its madness. Instead, it features a bafflingly large number of close-ups on Lumiere's (Ewan McGregor) face, which is mostly expressionless despite the animators’ best attempts at making the metal part of a candelabra communicate emotion. It all feels weightless. A reminder, here, that the animated original was warm and thrilling despite featuring setpieces that were totally divorced from any sense of reality.
Evans and Gad are also the only ones (apart from Audra McDonald) whose singing rates above being simply competent. While Emma Watson’s acting is lovely, her singing is autotuned to the point that you can hear the computer warbles in it. Dan Stevens, meanwhile, is obscured by a face that seems like it might have been more expressive as a practical make-up effect than in its current CGI manifestation. He’s proven in past work that he can be charming, but what might have come off as cute from a human man comes off as odd and out-of-period from a computer-generated beast.
Again, there are nuggets of gold visible in this Beauty and the Beast. There's a darker, deeper story hidden underneath the gold and glitz, and the racial diversity in the cast is all the more interesting for never being commented on, but to truly mine them would require divesting the movie of its safety cushion. As it is, that cushion — nostalgia — is the primary thing the movie has going for it.
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10
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