BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Directed by Bill Condon
Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans
It's a tale as old as time, and one that rings especially true for millennials, as Disney brings to life its animated classic Beauty and the Beast with an enchanting cast of performers, new music, and the sights and sounds so very familiar. Directed by Bill Condon, the maestro behind awards season darling Dreamgirls, Beauty and the Beast pays its respects to its source material to mostly positive results, but a few mislead attempts at freshness feel more choppy and dull, rather than inspiring.
The story may be hundreds of years old, but most people immediately think of the 1991 animated film adaptation when they hear the title Beauty and the Beast. Rich with beautiful music and exciting, groundbreaking animation (for its time), that Disney classic arrived at the height of the Disney renaissance and went on to become the first animated film to ever be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. The "Be Our Guest" sequence remains one of the most exciting film moments of all time and the titular theme song brings about enough nostalgia to make you sick with glee when the orchestral tones begin.
Like with most things in Hollywood, when you've got something good, it's probably going to come back around in some regard in years to come. Sometimes, those results are eye-popping and wonderful (looking at you The Jungle Book); other times they are quickly forgotten (sorry Pete's Dragon, though, for the record I really enjoyed it).
Condon's retelling of this tale as old as time means well and almost hits every note right. Emma Watson is perfectly cast as Belle, a smart, driven women fallen victim to a society where men are great and women are there to tell the men that they are great. Instead of being a bumbling bimbo, a beggar woman, or a wife/mother (the only options for women in the countryside of France, apparently), Belle spends her days reading books (gasp!) and inventing, like her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline). Watson, a driven feminist in her own right, brings a certain bravura to this version of Belle that is refreshing while also still staying true to the wandering spirit of her animated counterpart. It's not that she's against love, she's in fact a hopeless romantic set on finding adventure through love, instead of settling for the meatheads at home.
Speaking of meatheads, Gaston (Luke Evans) is the most well-rounded character here. Evans is every bit the self-loving hunk Gaston needs to be. Even when it feels over-the-top, it works. A trait of which the film needs a little more.
In regards to casting, most of the film is spot on, featuring performers that either look or sound (or both) like the animated classic, which is a good thing. For a film so dependent on the audiences' familiarity with the 1991 film, offering too many changes is bound to hurt. Which directly links to what's wrong with this film.
There's a certain respect earned by a film that's going to be looked at with a fine-tooted comb being willing to branch out, but how it branches out makes or breaks it. The added jokes and innuendos provided by characters like Le Fou (Josh Gad) give a fresh punch, but the added visual "jokes" like Stanley Tucci's Cadenza (one of the people-turned-furniture who inhabit the castle) firing his piano keys during the film's battle sequence, fall as flat as some of the quick-witted one-liners provided by Lumiere (Ewan Mcgregor) and Cogsworth (Ian McKellen). In fact, it's the talking furniture that really bring the entire spectacle down.
CGI has invaded modern film in a way that means even the most literary film, like The Great Gatsby, will see hours and hours of painstaking digital artistry before the film hits the big screen. With Beauty and the Beast's magical elements, Disney-fied digital sorcery are a given. But, much like the overblown Alice in Wonderland franchise, the most elaborate spectacles feel too animated to truly fir into the make believe "real" world. In this version of the "Be Our Guest" moment, what should be a toe-tapping delights becomes almost a nauseating collection of frantic colors and digitally-created elements that fail to translate to the large IMAX format, surprisingly.
The Beast's face is a whole other topic of confusion. Dan Stevens does his best at offering a brooding voice, but his stale acting, no doubt hindered by the stilted costume, is awkward and not quite engrossing enough to fully work. With the added palate of digital face imagery, the entire being of the Beast is frantic and distracting. It's the most elaborate element that never quite seems to work.
Effects aside, the film's structure feels a little choppy, mostly due to Condon's search for fresh material and new, engaging moments that will hopefully set this film apart. In fact, there are enough fade out moments to make you wonder if, at one point, this may have been intended as a made-for-TV project. You'll almost expect a commercial to pop up. The choppiness doesn't end with just the transitions. Certain aspects of the story seem to never be fully resolved, or surprisingly brought up out of nowhere. When the Beast is transformed into his human likeness at the end, and the castle and its inhabitants transform into their former selves, we're greeted with a number of reunions between once-angry townsfolk and their family members, who have been living in the castle as inanimate objects. What should be an emotional plot device doesn't feel earned at all. We've never seen these people pine for the ones they miss and love. That added emotional level would've been great to see earlier in the film and feed into the drive of these townspeople to "kill the beast."
While that seems like a lot that's "wrong" with the film, it's endearing music and subtle callbacks to the older film almost make up for any missteps. The film uses the direct film score from the original in this version, layered among new, inspiring musical cues. The new cast members give their own spins on the classic songs, mostly to much aplomb. Watson serves as the best example here, followed by Evans and Gad. Emma Thompson, playing Mrs. Potts, gives a charming turn at the titular song, though it's hard to forget and wish for the Angela Lansbury version.
Beauty and the Beast fits somewhere in the middle of the ranking list of Disney's best efforts to bring its classic animated films to life. It's extremely watchable and nostalgic, especially for those who grew up watching the animated film on repeat. It's a tough sell, especially when you try to forget every note and word of the original and enjoy this new vision. It may have worked better had Condon chose to make fewer or more changes. With it's awkward blend of exact replications of the film we all love and new items, the film doesn't quite reach "amazing" status. Anything you may be criticizing throughout is almost tossed out the window, however, during Audra McDonald's belting reprise of "Beauty and the Beast" during the film's finale. It packs a punch of the feels, despite taking a while to truly, honestly get there.
Runtime: 2h 9min