This tale as old as time gets dusted off once again for a generally satisfying, albeit uninspired, live-action remake.
Something (Missing) There
Disney’s gotten a lot of mileage out of Beauty and the Beast. The original animated feature competed with Silence of the Lambs as an Oscar nominee for Best Picture in 1992 — back before there was an Oscar dedicated to Best Animated Feature Film; that award didn’t start until 10 years later, in 2002. A stage version opened on Broadway in 1994, where it played for 13 years. It’s still touring the world. In 2002, there was an IMAX upgrade of the animated feature, which added in the song Human Again.
Now there’s this big-budget live-action adaptation. This one follows on the heels of impressive live-action takes on Alice in Wonderland (directed by Tim Burton), Cinderella (directed by Kenneth Branagh) and The Jungle Book (directed by Jon Favreau and boasting groundbreaking, Oscar-winning visual effects). Next up, Burton is rumored to be involved in a live-action version of Dumbo.
This latest iteration of Beauty and the Beast, directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), is impressive — at times. But it’s missing something. It needs some sort of hook, a driver for reimagining the story, such as with Burton’s wild visual spin on Alice, or a revisiting of older properties like Cinderella and Jungle Book that make them feel wholly new again.
This one’s a too-faithful remake of a story — and a look — that hasn’t had the opportunity to leave the pop culture consciousness since its debut 26 years ago. Condon should’ve been bold with more of a focus on location filming (there is some, but not enough) and followed the brave footsteps of Les Miserables by recording the singing on the set for greater performance realism.
Be Their Guest
As it stands, the bold steps the movie does take are less ambitious technically. It has an inclusive cast, including very light, extremely brief, homosexual overtones involving one of the story’s most beloved supporting characters. It also features a contemporary sense of humor, thanks largely to Josh Gad’s take on LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick.
The cast is led by Emma Watson (Hermione in the Harry Potter series) and she does a fine job as Belle. Dan Stevens (TV’s Downton Abbey) is also fine as the prince turned beast. But calling them “fine” isn’t a heaping helping of praise; the staid reaction is also a by-product of this production’s lack of anything new.
The most interesting choice is in the supporting cast. Madame Garderobe is played by Audra McDonald — a veritable living legend on Broadway — who has the vocal pipes to blow out all the stained-glass windows in the beast’s castle. When she’s on screen, it’s clear she’s the professional singer and everybody else is simply trying to keep up. She provides a sort of validation as to the quality of the music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (and Tim Rice). Come to think of it, a complete cast of Broadway’s A-listers would’ve been another way to set this production apart, offering plenty of aural pleasures. Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci? C’mon.
Ewan McGregor returns to France for another musical run a la Moulin Rouge!, this time as Lumiere, the singing and dancing candelabra. Luke Evans (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) is surprisingly good as Gaston. Accompanied by the aforementioned Gad (Frozen), their rendition of Gaston’s eponymous drinking song is funny, but not exactly rousing.
Winter Is Coming
This version manages to right one particular wrong, or at least irritant.
A criticism of the story’s central theme, that of converting a beast into a prince, is the potential misinterpration of the story to teach girls to put up with abusive relationships in the hopes of a positive change. The ol’ “challenge” theory about turning a man into something he innately is not.
Sure, the real idea is people shouldn’t be deceived by appearances — that message is also as old as time and every bit as relevant in this age of the hoodie generation. It’s not about how you dress, but what you know.
To that end, Gaston is clearly the real, unredeemable monster who is so self-enamored as to never be able to truly understand the meaning of love — and real beauty.
This time around, if anything, the Beast has been somewhat declawed. Aside from one or two scenes of crotchety “get off my lawn” agitation, the Beast offers a clearer path to his true self. The stage is set, as always, by a haggard street maiden who is ridiculed by the dashing, spoiled young prince. It’s revealed she’s a sorceress with the power to transform herself into a beautiful enchantress. Cursed by the sorceress, the prince and his helpers are relegated to a bleak life in a castle shrouded in eternal winter.
It’s rather disheartening that even with a trough of Disney dollars, in 2017 it’s still darn near impossible to make on-set snow scenes look real. Artificial and digital snow — particularly accumulated snow on walkways — is still a technical challenge that threatens the movie magic.
Watson’s Belle is a dream girl in more ways than one. She’s a spunky, independent girl unlike the other man-hungry ladies of the village. Belle’s constantly got her face in books — a mindset predating the distractions offered by smartphones. The village has a limited library — a mere handful of books — but the prince has a massive library all to himself. And Belle is all about literacy and empowering other girls to read, much to the chagrin of the other villagers, especially the male villagers.
Those are key scenes that stay focused strictly on human characters played by human actors performing in natural sunlight. There’s an energy there that provides the movie with a desperately-needed freshness. This expanded look at village life also helps stretch the original movie’s 85-minute run-time to 129 minutes.
But, of course, the fantasy dictates many of the humans transform into otherwise inanimate objects. That’s when the CGI takes center stage and the freshness fades, dropping away like those rose petals as they fall away, drawing the curse closer to an eternal state.
Sure, Be Our Guest is a terrific showstopper. It’s never looked or sounded better. And it couldn’t be done without CGI. Nonetheless, this live-action fairy tale could’ve benefitted from more of the purely human element.