Film Review: Beauty and the Beast

Disney's latest live-action remake mimics the original with little room for the new

Let’s be upfront. From a consumer reporting standpoint, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is not the best deal. As a production, it’s a kindhearted but over-dressed affair. As a movie, well, you know there’s already a perfect 1991 Disney film out there. This remake is too close to the Best Picture-nominated classic to justify the filigree of this “special edition” live-action update.

Which is to say – if the source film’s successes and best qualities are any indication – audiences fresh to this spin on Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s novel will enjoy the new Beauty and the Beast. The initiated, however, will likely wonder what the endgame was here beyond the obvious money to be made on a familiar IP. And at its worst, the new film is visually overcooked, lacking the focus, pop, and emotional brevity of its inspiration. To quote the talking clock in the ’91 movie, “If it’s not baroque, don’t fix it.”

Roughly a dozen film adaptations, a world of Disney Princess paraphernalia, and a Meat Loaf music video later, here’s yet another Beauty and the Beast. But, to its modest credit, at least this version lacks zoophilia. This movie, as you might have guessed, parties very much like it’s 1991: covered in lace, frilly and frolicking in a vague and out-of-time France. What’s it like seeing the same fabulist affair with actors and CGI? Disappointing, given the film’s nominal attempts at innovation.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one. Belle (Emma Watson) is a young woman with a song in her heart, and her nose in a book. She dreams of a world beyond her “provincial’ life, and the drooling whims of a town bully by the name of Gaston (Luke Evans, with what appears to be a comically painted cleft chin). She’s a loner. A girl with a flighty father (Kevin Kline) and a tragic past. But Belle is determined, and Condon presents her as plucky, doe-eyed and merry, singing despite the glowering condemnations of her stuck-up town.

Meet Beast (Dan Stevens, under thousands of hours of computer-rendered fur). Or rather, a foppish prince named Adam, who runs afoul of a sorceress trying to find shelter from a storm. Adam callously rejects the sorceress, and for his transgression he’s morphed into a fuzzy nightmare with horns and the face of a bison. Adam’s castle is transformed into a gothic series of spindles and gargoyles, forever shrouded by snow and night. Adam’s staff become anthropomorphic objects, trapped in the castle as well. Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Adam’s royal valet, is now a talking, wooing candelabra with a thick French patois. Housemaid Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) becomes a teapot. Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), the butler, is now an ornate clock with hands for a mustache. The only way for everyone to get back to normal is for Adam the Beast to find true love and break the curse, not just for himself, but for his castle and its staff.

Belle’s father gets lost, and finds the Beast’s castle by accident. The Beast makes him a prisoner. Belle rescues her father by becoming the Beast’s prisoner in a trade. At first she laments, woeful that she may never see her father again. But guess what? Belle and the Beast grow on each other. They learn to care for one another. Maybe they could even learn to…love. It’s the classic opposites-attract narrative. Belle is intelligent, stubborn, and selfless. Adam is filled with rage and bitterness, but with a beating heart beneath the wild veneer. They dance. They share stolen glances, talk of Shakespeare, and trade snowballs. A “will they”/”won’t they” blooms, and it’s a race to the finish for Beast to break his spell.

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If it isn’t abundantly clear by now, Condon keeps things the same as they ever were. The script is a trumped-up duplication, right down to the line reads and character designs. It’s still full of Disney glitz. It’s still a romance in a classically staged tradition. Lumière still sings “Be Our Guest,” albeit without Jerry Orbach’s gravelly tenor. Belle’s famed yellow dress is made tangible and opulent with golden lining. Adam’s famed castle is now a living, breathing construct made of props, sets, and digital augmentations. It’s a thickly framed facsimile, and Condon savors the details, albeit with a literally darker focus.

It’s somewhat pointless to critique the plotting, given that Condon and his writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos adhere reverently to the 1991 film, and the emotional beats and placement of music still work, if mostly out of kneejerk familiarity. Maybe the story’s so strong that the straightforward is irrelevant. But Beauty lacks surprise, or invention. It’s just a loving homage. Watson sings well – but not as passionately as Paige O’Hara. Stevens captures the frustration of the Beast, but his pathos and expressions are buried under gray-brown effects. Ultimately, the new Beauty and the Beast is best approached as a tribute.

Condon attempts to justify Disney’s revival by adding a few little touches, and pads out the plot with brief new songs, expanded music from the original, and the general embellishments that comes with stretching an 85-minute movie to 129 minutes. There are deceased mother backstories for both Belle and the Beast that tie the film to historical French plagues. Belle lives up to her failed promise to see new places from the first film by visiting Paris – and singing a tiny song about “the Paris of my childhood” inside the windmill in which she was raised. Le Fou (Josh Gad), Gaston’s lackey, is now gay, which is a great step for Disney, even if the character’s actions are predictable and ultimately uninteresting. Kline opines for his lost love in a one-minute song that won’t work its way into anyone’s ears anytime soon. These flourishes pile on and distract from the already strong central romance, and Alan Menken’s even stronger music.

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The film also revels in its production design, offering a gilded staging, but the effect is like watching a live Pinterest board of favorite moments and scenes, done up in exhaustive rococo and gold fileting. There’s something about this style of remake that opens itself to easy criticism, because Condon’s obsession with the details disallows him from ever being truly creative. We get it, leafing and buttresses are fanciful and decorative, and they resemble the animated version. But this film’s designs arenever as inventive as the dancing Busby Berkeley plates from the Disney original, or even the moving arm candelabras of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.

The production bends to the original’s will, slavishly re-creating scenes and musical numbers almost shot for shot, but a little darker since modern digital cinematography lacks the clarity of old-fashioned line-and-pencil work. A good example: remember the yellow and blue ballroom dance? It’s here. And it’s darkened by 30%, filled with low-contrast flickers of artificial night lighting. Sometimes, bright blues and yellows are easier on the eyes, and have more life.

The movie is like a second verse, sung a little louder and just a little bit worse. Julie Taymor’s stage rendition of The Lion King used that film’s popular soundtrack to offer a different, imaginative experience. Last year’s The Jungle Book, while also set up with the original movie’s tunes, explored old ideas with expressive, naturalistic CGI. But Condon doesn’t mess around. This film could have done much worse, but it certainly doesn’t strive to top or reinvent the 1991 film in any meaningful way.

The fact that this Beauty and the Beast offers the same sensations that one could get from, say, buying the recent 25th anniversary re-release of Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s musical masterpiece on home video leaves you asking: why not just watch that instead? It’s a swifter, brighter film, and likely a cheaper buy than a pair of 3D tickets. Any additions to this new version feel like adornments and supplementary features at best.

But if you’re still interested, be our guest.


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