Disney is on a winning streak in the animation department at the moment, pulling ahead of their Pixar division and on a relatively original intellectual property slate at that. On the live action front, they have a somewhat mystifying but financially lucrative strategy: remake their animated classics in live action, with the intervention of computer graphics where necessary. Maleficent was their wrong-headed attempt to “rehabilitate” the arch villainess of Sleeping Beauty; Cinderella a straightforward, slightly evolved telling of the classic tale without the songs. Beauty and the Beast is their most direct attempt yet, with only a few differences. Does it supplant or supplement the 1991 original?
In a France still under the yoke of monarchy, inventor Maurice (Kevin Kline, Ricki and the Flash) doesn’t return to his provincial town. His daughter Belle (Emma Watson, Regression) finds him prisoner in the castle of a forgotten prince, cursed to be a Beast (Dan Stevens, TV’s Legion). She takes Maurice’s place and the castle staff, led by candelabra Lumiére (Ewan McGregor, T2: Trainspotting), clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen, TV’s Vicious) and teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson, Alone in Berlin) try to warm them up to each other. Meanwhile, master huntsman and decorated war hero Gaston (Luke Evans, The Girl on the Train) desires Belle’s hand in marriage and will do anything to take it … if he can find her.
It is impossible not to draw endless comparisons between Beauty and the Beast and its antecedent, because apart from sharing many script elements and all of the original songs (plus some more besides), it recreates many of the sets almost exactly. This slavish fidelity makes one wonder why director Bill Condon (Mr. Holmes) was so adamant about making another musical version of a movie that was already hailed as “the best Broadway musical of 1991”. The original songs, written by Alan Menken (Sausage Party) and Howard Ashman (Aladdin), are theoretically still grand, but “Be Our Guest” comes across as somewhat limp, as the movie isn’t willing to abstract itself enough by virtue of its liveness, and parts of “Belle” and “Gaston” are mixed as if they don’t want us to hear what the ensemble are singing, which is somewhat criminal for character-establishing songs. The new songs, written by Menken with Tim Rice (The Road to El Dorado) — different to those written for the overstuffed 1994 Broadway musical — fare somewhat better, but Condon shows little of his usual flare for choreographing such sequences.
Where Beauty and the Beast fares better is on the base script level; at 45 minutes longer than the original, writers Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) have subjected Belle, the Beast, Maurice, Gaston and LeFou (Josh Gad, Angry Birds) to deeper development, and the story itself to a healthy dose of logic. The Beast’s curse is still somewhat arbitrary, but it was given for sounder reasons, and there are intellectual reasons for Belle’s warming to him.
Watson is a charming Belle, although her singing voice never comes close to sounding natural, and she works well with Stevens, who does an excellent job of making one forget the entire Stockholm Syndrome aspects of the undertaking. Evans isn’t quite so intimidating a specimen, and he can’t hope to compete with the truly iconic voice of Richard White, but he has good comic timing and plays well off Gad, whose LeFou is a somewhat rounded character this time out. The all-star cast assembled to play computer-generated servants acquit themselves well, but they are no longer a priority. This is a film that has a different mission, and the parts that work the best are so far apart from the original that you wonder why Disney wanted the rest of it to be an inferior clone.
From a technical perspective, Beauty and the Beast ends up better than one fears; the servants who look so dubious on paper are fine in motion, albeit never as impressive as one might hope. The Beast himself, originally shot with practical effects but digitally enhanced in post-production, is expressive and sympathetic; his imposing nature is largely psychological. With French fashion history, architecture and hundreds of millions of dollars on Disney’s side, you’d better believe that the production values are exceptional. This is definitely a pretty movie, if a less merchandisable film than one might have expected.
Beauty and the Beast is a film that has unfair competition with its source material. It’s not great as a musical, but as a piece of dramatic fiction it has something to recommend it that pushes it across the line into satisfactory, even entertaining, cinema. The song may only be as old as 26 years — several lifetimes for its key demographic! — and it may be too soon for some, but Beauty and the Beast is more than a cynical grab at Millennials’ purse strings.
Beauty and the Beast opened in Australian cinemas on March 23, 2017.
Directed by: Bill Condon.
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson.