After building an incomparable reputation for groundbreaking animated adventures, Disney strives to find new life in their classic tales with live-action remakes like “Maleficent,” “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book,” and now “Beauty and the Beast.” But where the previous remakes folded in modern sensibilities, modern perspectives and jaw-dropping CGI creatures to create lively re-imaginations of Disney classics, their latest is so brazenly beholden to the original cartoon, that I’m left wondering why they bothered to make it at all. Heralded “Dreamgirls” director Bill Condon took a star-studded cast, a dizzying budget, and a tale as old as time, and instead of manifesting a magical remake, delivers a lackluster re-enactment.
Set in a provincial 18th French village, “Beauty and the Beast” follows a grinning bookworm named Belle (Emma Watson) as she rescues her loving father (Kevin Kline) from the clutches of a furious Beast (Dan Stevens), who lives in a cursed castle where his servants have been transformed into baubles, furniture, and flatware. Against all odds, this beautiful girl and her cantankerous captor connect over a love of literature and their misfit status, and form a bond that could free him from the shackles of an enchantress’s intense spell. But their potential bliss is challenged when arrogant and mercurial playboy Gaston (Luke Evans) sets his sites on marrying Belle, then on slaying her beastly beau.
It’s the story you remember from Disney’s first adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale, but with a few decidedly darker flares, none of them welcomed. For instance, in this version Gaston not only tries to send Belle’s dad off to an asylum, but also attempts to murder him, leaving him in a wolf-infested wood to be eaten alive. Likewise, the falling of the enchanted rose’s last petal doesn’t only mean Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts and little Chip will be forever trapped in their forms as candelabras, clocks and tea sets, but that they will become fully inanimate and die. Plus, newly woven backstories fold in a neglectful father, two dying mothers, and the bubonic plague. Yet these twisted ornamentations do little to distract from the glaring similarities between these adaptations.
I marvel that Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos are awarded the only screenwriting credits when about 80% of “Beauty and Beast”s dialogue is dedicatedly plucked from Linda Woolverton’s 1991 script. How do I know? Because having watching the animated version so many times throughout my life that I’ve lost track, I have its every moment engraved on my very soul. So, I spent long stretches of this live-action retread mouthing along to Belle, the Beast, Lumiere, Cogsworth and Gaston. And not only are these the same lines, but also many of the actors mimic the same phrasing! It’s like listening to a cover band. They might occasionally come close to their inspiration, but wouldn’t you still prefer to see the real Beatles?
All too often, the songs work the same way, which works against cast members who aren’t professional singers, namely Watson. As she twirls through tunes like “Belle” and “Something There,” it’s impossible not to compare her earnest attempt — tweaked with all too obvious auto-tuning — to Paige O’Hara’s career defining performance. Making matter worse for Watson, she’s starring alongside living legends of Broadway, like six-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald who plays an opera-belting wardrobe, and Josh Gad, who translated his quirky gravitas from “Book of Mormon” to “Frozen”s chipper snowman, Olaf, and now to Gaston’s plucky (and openly gay) sidekick Le Fou. When these two sing, the soundtrack comes to vibrant life, reverberating through the movie theater as if you’ve been transported to Broadway’s most prestigious halls. And even Stevens manages a heart-swelling rendition of “Evermore,” a booming song pulled from the “Beauty and the Beast” Broadway show. Then, it’s awkward to hear Ewen McGregor poor imitation of the campy French accent Jerry Orbach memorably created for Lumiere, which makes the once-showstopping “Be Our Guest” feel more jarring than joyful.
You might think it’s unfair to compare the two films so rigorously, but Condon’s execution demands it, as he snatches not only dialogue, songs, and phrasing from the first film, but also costumes, staging and cinematography! Belle’s simple blue dress, her signature gold gown, even Gaston’s proud pompadour are devotedly crafted like this is a cosplay competition. Then, there’s scads of scenes slavishly lensed shot-for-shot, recreating small moments–like when Belle considers getting on her horse and leaving the wounded Beast to the wolves–to the most iconic–like when the gold sprays of spells wrap the Beast in light, then reveal him with a dramatic turn and theatrical zoom to be the blond and beautiful Adam. This is why I insist we call this not a remake but a re-enactment, because rather than attempting to do something new with something old, Condon forced real people into the charming skin of cartoon characters. And the poor fit pitches the whole movie into Uncanny Valley, a realm where characters feel not real and yet not cartoon, and so make us inherently uncomfortable. Speaking of the Uncanny Valley, the Beast is a disaster.
In design he resembles the animated version, brandishing horns, a sharp-toothed smile, flowing fur, hulking muscles, and legs like a wolf. But the visual effects team played down his once pronounced snout to make this Beast look more like a man suffering from hypertrichosis. This might be a clever nod to the true love story believed to have inspired the fairy tale (Google: Pretus Gonslavus), but the character never looks photo-real in the way of “Jungle Book”s incredible detailed furry heroes. So the spell of suspension of disbelief is broken every time the shot lingers too long. And that’s a true shame, because Dan Steven’s performance–through grumbling growls and lashings out to awkward flirtations and graceful dancing–is captivating, even muddied by a confounding CGI. Having been a big fan of the “Beauty and the Beast” TV series from the 1980s that featured Ron Perlman in heavy, lion-like prosthetic make-up, I lament the rejection of the practical effects route here. Le sigh.
Belle is also underwhelming. Watson seems content to keep this Disney princess nice and lovely, never bothering to spark the part with the side-eye, smirks or sass that urged the cartoon character to boot Gaston from her home, or rage back against the Beast’s outbursts. Essentially, she missed out on the rebellious essence of the character. Without it, this hapless heroine feels less aspiration and exciting.
Strangely, the standout performance is Evans as Gaston, who relishes every show-boating opportunity playing the volatile braggart. I admit, I was unimpressed when I’d seen the first images of the Welsh star in his “Beauty and the Beast” wardrobe. He seemed too puny to portray the barrel-chested brute who eats five-dozen eggs every morning, and every last inch of him is certainly not covered in hair. Yet Evans won me over, bounding about in big boots that should have been near impossible. He flashes a cocky smile, his eyes glint with dangerous fury, and just like that, he’s the vain villain we love to hate. His Gaston is mesmerizing and menacing, and a welcomed surprise amid so much safe repetition.
Granted, “Beauty and the Beast” had a greater challenge than Disney’s previous live-action re-adaptations. Its source animation was more recent, far more iconic, and better remembered than “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book.” Maybe Condon chose to give in to the nostalgia rather than challenge it with something brazenly new. But this surrender to repetition makes the film feel astonishingly unnecessary. When a filmmaker diligently recreates the frames of comic book in its movie adaptation, perhaps that’s being true to the art. Perhaps it’s fan service. But it still allows for innovation and invention in the motion that sets cinema apart from comics. However, when a director grueling recreates shots, staging and performances that have already been captured on film, well, that’s just “Psycho” 1998, an arguably interesting experiment, but one that feels like a wasted opportunity to take bolder gambles.
“Beauty and the Beast” opens March 17.