Tale as recycled as time…
I have to casually remind my audience that I have nothing against remakes so when my critiques come out, they don’t instantly think that I’m holding the original in a higher esteem that’s unattainable by any measure. And given how Disney is currently in the process of remaking all of their classic (read: commercially viable) adaptations of fairy tales, I’m going to have to make that disclaimer more often than not in the future. But do keep in mind, I appreciated both of last year’s Pete’s Dragon and The Jungle Book, but that was because both took the original outlines of their respective tales and went off to new directions in terms of tone and character. So how does the new Beauty and the Beast compare to this new crop of remakes? Well, it’s far closer in terms of quality and mission to Cinderella (2016) than the 2016 films I mentioned…and that’s not really a great thing.
I feel a plot synopsis is only necessary for those who have never seen the original film either because you had no access to a theater or a television at all. That’s not an insult to these people by the way, I’m only referring to the fact that original 1991 animation was shoved down pop culture’s collective consciousness harder than most properties ever were in theaters, television, coloring books, toys, and lunch boxes. But for those not in the know: Belle (Emma Watson) is a headstrong, educated woman frustrated by her simple life in a simple farming town in France. She hates the townsfolk for being a bunch of ignorant rednecks and is constantly annoyed by the advancements made by the town’s vain and arrogant captain of the guard, Gaston (Luke Evans). When Belle’s father (Kevin Kline) gets captured inside a magical castle, she sets out to find him and discovers he’s a prisoner of the Beast (Dan Stevens), a poor CGI-puppet that towers over Belle and offers her the chance to take her father’s place as his prisoner. While she despairs, the castle’s former servants who had all been transformed into antiques make a plan to break their and their master’s curse: if the Beast could learn to love another and that person loved him, they would all return to normal.
As they say, it’s a “tale as old as time.” One of the reason that it’s so timeless is because you have characters with easily defined goals proceeding forward in a logical way. It lends itself to various different interpretations from batshit television shows to awful YA knockoffs. But Disney’s 1991 animation still stands as the definitive version of the tale thanks to the music, the visuals, and the design of the Beast and his anthropomorphic servants. So I get why Disney would want to remake something that’s so clearly ingrained into pop culture, but it would have helped their new version if they had something, anything that would allow it to stand apart from its counterpart. Unfortunately, this film has two big marks against it: the new stuff is just padding to fill out the run time that adds nothing of substance and the movie recreates multiple iconic scenes from the original that still stand on their own.
Keep in mind, barely anything was changed in jumping from animation to live action. Belle is still the smart ass girl who thinks she’s much better than her simple townsfolk; Beast is still an angry, unrepentant douchebag who learns to control his temper; and the servants all retain the personalities from the 1991 version. The story plays out exactly the same, with the original songs re-performed in framing that’s eerily similar to the animation. Now keep in mind, the songs are still damn great. Hell, I’ve been humming “Bonjour,” “Be Our Guest,” and “Beauty and the Beast” over and over again for the past day because they are such great earworms. Less impressive? The new songs that got scotched-taped onto the film for the sake of faux-originiality, and here’s where we begin with my biggest problems with the remake.
So the new songs not only serve little to no purpose in the story, but they’re not even performed with as much passion as was given to the original songs. We do now have given Beast a chance to do a solo and you quickly learn why that wasn’t a great idea and why it was never done in the original. Aside from the fact Dan Stevens really can’t sing as well as his costars (who are only decent), the song was meant to convey an emotion in which the original communicated in absolute silence. That’s not an improvement, that’s a major step back and it continues to the film’s other strange additions.
What I’m about to discuss is a new scene which is still not a spoiler because: a) it really has no effect on the story at large and b) is never brought up again for the rest of the film. See, Beast reveals that he received a magical book from the enchantress who cursed him, and this tomb can teleport you anywhere in the world. So Belle and Beast transport themselves to Belle’s childhood home in Paris where she learns that after all this time, Belle’s mother had died from the Plague. Except you already knew her mother is dead to a tragic circumstance thanks to an earlier scene in the film where Belle’s father reminisces about happier times with her.
Um…that magic book should change the flow of the film significantly, hell it could have changed how multiple events in the climax play out. But once again, it’s never brought up again. It’s a scene that could easily be cut and you would have the exact same film as before only 10 minutes shorter. It only served to fulfill a character motivation that we, the audience, had no idea was a motivation on Belle’s part. So since it serves no purpose to the story or the characters at large, it’s 100% pointless.
Hey speaking of pointlessness, let’s talk about the whole non-controversy about Disney’s “first” gay character, LeFou played by Frozen‘s Josh Gad. All that buildup to release including an Alabama theater refusing to show the film because of the presence of one homosexual in the supporting cast (despite being weirdly okay with bestiality), the so-called “plotline” goes absolutely nowhere. Hell, if Disney had not called attention to it, no one would have batted an eye because it’s such a non-entity in this film. It’s only to give an added bit of comedy to the “Gaston” song, which was perfectly fine and was one of this film’s highlights.
Alright, let’s ease back on the ragging to explain that I’m not entirely down on this film. Not only was the “Gaston” scene perfectly well done, but every recreation of the animation’s songs was filmed in a Broadway-adaptation style allowing for some clever choreography and unique visuals that are on par with the surprise the original songs gave. And yes, I did think Emma Watson did perfectly fine as Belle. It wasn’t a great role, but the part barely gives anything for an actress to do but exude their natural charisma. Thankfully, Watson is able to convey enough charm and wonder at what she’s witnessing that you can believe she’s in an enchanted castle.
The supporting cast are all really well done as well. Luke Evans was having the time of his life playing Gaston, delivering a smarmy, condescending asshole that everyone loved to hate. And while the gay subplot is useless, Josh Gad’s LeFou was still fun to watch. I even liked Ewan McGregor as Lumiere the Candelabra, especially when he to perform “Be Our Guest,” I dare say I liked his interpretation better than the original. Hell, even the computer effects for him and the other antiques not only moved and looked great, but they felt like they were truly in the same scene as Belle when everyone shared the screen. Same praise goes for Ian McKellen as Cogsworth and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts. What felt like a waste in the supporting cast was Audra McDonald as the wardrobe because she has such a beautiful singing voice that is sadly only used in the very beginning and the very end for two or three lyrics a piece.
Excluded from my roundup of praise, you notice, is Beast himself. I already explained that Dan Stevens’ singing voice is noticeably weaker than the rest of the cast, but he has zero to no chemistry with Emma Watson. And honestly, that’s a huge misstep in a film titled “Beauty and the Beast.” This film’s reception entirely depends on the bond between the two main characters, but you simply don’t care too much about either of them or their respective plights. Further, nothing was done to cure the film of the uncomfortable Stockholm Syndrome that plagued the original animation, and in fact this version adds a tragic backstory for Beast having an abusive father…because if you’re going to make an adaptation of a toxic relationship, you might as well double down on all the wretchedness of it.
Finally, there’s zero reason for Beast to be computer-generated in this film. There are only two scenes where Beast runs around as something beyond human, but that could have easily been accomplished with wires and camera trickery while giving you a Beast laden in very clever makeup. Hell, every other live action interpretation of this fairy tale practically prides itself in how unique they could make the Beast look. But this Disney remake tried to go halfway for something that was its own creation and something that reminded you of the original animation’s iconic design. This CGI-creation just looks strange in certain scenes when Beast looks directly in the camera, and the eyes give the entire illusion away. It’s a major letdown that keeps distracting you throughout the film and a baffling chocie on the aprt of the director.
Now keep in mind, at the helm we have Bill Condon who previously directed Chicago, another good musical film adaptation that brought a lot of style to the table to help separate itself from the source material. Condon’s eyes for impressive set design and costume work is used to great effect for this new Beauty and the Beast, and his framing for several scenes are well done even if they do remind you of the original animation like crazy.
Now I really do want to judge this film on its own merits, but I can’t do that because this remake kept reminding me of several scenes the 1991 version did better. At the same time, the scale and scope of the production are enough to recommend this version to die-hard fans of the original or for those introducing this material for the first time to their children. I really, really, REALLY want to give this a High Rental because ultimately, this remake serves no purpose but to cash in on nostalgia from 26 years ago. At the same time, I was still charmed by the supporting cast to such a degree that it helped pumped the film up in terms of enjoyment to at least see this in theaters. So with that, I’m giving this a very, very low…