Beauty and the Beast (2017) / Fantasy-Musical
MPAA Rated: PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images
Running Time: 129 min.
Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, Hattie Morahan, Gugu Mbatha-War
Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Review published March 19, 2017
If you're someone who loves the 1991 Disney animated classic of the same name and are already jaded against any and all remakes of beloved properties, you're probably the least likely to enjoy the 2017 live-action remake, which seeks to add more plausibility and backstory to explain character motivations, but lacks the consummate charm you've come to know and love through multitudinous repeat viewings. While I generally strive to take each film I review on its own terms, the basic plot is identical to the original, as are many of the songs, shot compositions, and lines of dialogue, so it's practically impossible to not draw comparisons.
When it came to other recent Disney live-action remakes like Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book, the studio dealt with films that perhaps weren't as beloved or had major elements that were dated, if not seemingly backwards, to today's views on race, class and gender. However, Beauty and the Beast is not only more recent than those efforts, but far more precious. Audiences are already predisposed to think one cannot improve upon the original when the original is so exquisite and enchanting in the best Disney tradition.
Disney's approach to this kind of fervor is to try not to rock the boat too much in terms of making major changes. Sure, the pre-release hype has been surrounding the first openly gay character found in a Disney film, but anyone who watches this movie will likely think it's much ado about nothing, and those who go into it without knowledge of that controversy may not even catch wind through what they see on the screen. However, at least for the first hour, it plays pretty much like the original, with a few exceptions, at least until it begins to approach its second and third acts, where new songs and new dynamics are introduced to shore up the depth of the romance and to develop more of a tragic backdrop to the eventual plot where Beast and Belle have to fight for life and love.
The story, for those who have yet to see the 1991 film, involves a lovely and fiercely independent girl named Belle (Watson, Noah), who lives with her widower inventor father Maurice (Kline, Ricki and the Flash) in a small provincial French village. She'd rather pursue her own path, which brings consternation to the local narcissistic he-man, Gaston (Evans, The Girl on the Train), who intends to marry Belle because she's the prettiest girl in town ("which makes her the best!") After Maurice gets lost in the thick and ominous woods, Belle goes out to find him, discovering his whereabouts in a secluded castle run by The Beast (Stevens, Night at the Museum 3), who has her father imprisoned for petty theft, and with whom Belle swaps places in captivity. The castle is enchanted, as evidenced by the fact that most household objects speak and talk, the victims of a curse brought upon the Beast, when in original human form, by a sorceress who found him most unkind. Beast and company may return to their former selves, but only if he finds a love that loves him in return. Belle may be the last option left before the curse becomes permanent.
Retaining some instant credibility for the re-do is the fact that Alan Menken (Enchanted, The Shaggy Dog) returns to provide the score for the remake, though none of the renditions are as consummately delightful as the original, even when they emerge as fairly lovely. While it's a good decision to keep the best things about the animated feature's production on board, the fact that it does them in the same manner, both musically and in terms of the shot compositions, makes it feel like a redundant effort rather than an inspired one. At least that's the case until new songs are performed, which are also well done, and yet, the film's dark tone doesn't allow for the same feeling of exuberance that won over audiences as captured in the 1991 release.
Set design is garish and baroque, with plenty of ornate detail in the production and costume design all around. Perhaps it's all too much, as the amount of detail within each anthropomorphized knick-knack loses some of the appealing traits of the simple designs that brought out more of the personality and allure within the animated original. In fact, most look like relics from a horror movie rather than one from a revered family-friendly property, which some audiences will find a bit unappealing.
Emma Watson, while not instantly mesmerizing in the role, acquits herself well as a live-actress Belle placeholder, and even delivers on some nice emotional moments late in the film that shore up the tears with the potential tragic fates for all who reside within the castle walls. What's missing is Paige O'Hara's rich voice when singing, and while Watson can carry a tune (rumored to be assisted by standard industry technology), the performance lacks the kind of distinction that made the ones from the original a particular delight.
As for the rest, Evans is certainly hunky and can carry a tune, but, at six feet tall with lean muscles, he's as far from the "size of a barge" as Gaston, quickly disappearing in the crowd at the pub where they all sing the praises of the epitome of the male specimen, and puny when compared to the massive bulk of the facially performance-captured character of The Beast, (who suffers from the kind of dead eyes that haven't been as obvious since the early days of the process.)
The great songs from the original are mostly still here, with a successful porting of the finely choreographed "Be Our Guest" sequence that dazzles, especially in the 3D showings. Ewan McGregor (Jane Got a Gun) provides the vocals for Lmiere with requisite pep, (though I'm still left wondering why Lumiere is the only character with a distinctly French accent when the entire cast of characters are supposed to be French and don't have it.) New songs are also well done, including Beast's solo, "Evermore", during a particularly anguished part of the story for his character.
Some may feel the ending, which will likely make many children cry in a way they do not for the original film, is perhaps going a bit too far into dark territory for their taste. Perhaps, but I can attest that at my screening that while I heard quite a few sobs in the audience for the fate of the castle staff, no one mentioned an issue with where the story went as they exited the theater, seemingly jubilant at the experience. Nevertheless, director Bill Condon (The Fifth Estate, Dreamgirls) is much more willing to explore the darker recesses of the story and the flaws within its characters, and some may prefer the more cheerful exuberance of the original.
To sum up the experience, 2017's version of Beauty and the Beast may technically fix a lot of the story holes and character development left behind by the 1991 release, and does a relatively faithful job in keeping what audiences love about the collection of songs intact, what doesn't translate is the charm of the voice work and animation. In short, it's neither a beauty nor a beast of a film; this is a remake to like, mostly as a reminder of what you loved in the animated original.
©2017 Vince Leo