Not to sound too cynical, but it appears Disney’s been actively testing our tolerance for remakes over the past several years. First, the Mouse House reworked its animated classics Alice in Wonderland (1951), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Cinderella (1950) into sparkly new blockbusters. Acceptable, as the originals films have admittedly grown outdated (especially the latter two, while Alice remains shockingly ahead of its time) and deserved to have the cobwebs removed. Then last year they released their reimagining of 1967’s The Jungle Book, a slightly less antiquated movie but one that is fifty years old nevertheless and provided ample opportunities for the company to show off their advances in immersive computer graphics technology.
Now Disney leaps ahead a few decades for their first (but certainly not last) live-action crack at the Renaissance era (their hugely successful string of hits between 1989 and 1999). As one might imagine, the original Beauty and the Beast still holds up exceptionally well, making it difficult for Disney to hide behind the excuse that kids these days simply can’t connect with it, an argument that could more reasonably be made for, say, the original Cinderella. As such, this Beauty from director Bill Condon is the most glaringly unnecessary Disney production mounted since Tim Burton’s horrendous Alice attempt. Luckily, they’ve learned much over the last seven years about how to best balance what still works from the originals with the aspects most in need of updating.
In particular, Beauty and the Beast’s simple yet effective romance remains mostly untouched. The relationship still goes from a captive/captor situation into a full-blown romance a bit too quickly while glossing over the disturbing implication of Stockholm Syndrome, but that was always an incredibly tricky dynamic which can likely never be full explored in a family friendly way… not to mention it’s patently besides the point. In a light and airy way, the chemistry between the actors works as expected.
Emma Watson has never been a top-tier actress, evidenced most severely in her overly-emotive Hermione performances in the middle few Harry Potter films. She has of course improved over time, but it’s still clear from her performance as Belle that she does fear and sadness far more convincingly than love or joy. She more or less has the look and the singing voice, but does not give as indelible a performance as Lily James’ Cinderella. Likewise, it’s hard to heap too much praise on Dan Stevens as Beast, mainly because he’s covered in CGI fur (very, very good-looking CGI fur, I might add). His eyes do much of the heavy lifting, and in that regard he was another good casting decision on Disney’s part.
Those disappointed that last year’s The Jungle Book either omitted or watered-down much of the original’s music will be glad to discover that the new Beauty and the Beast actually includes more songs than its 1991 predecessor, written by original composer Alan Menkin. None of this new material can hold a candle (no pun intended) to the returning favorites, but they do fit seamlessly in terms of tone, and give the characters’ simplistic internal conflicts an extra dose of sophistication.
But it’s a shame then that the visuals that accompany these musical numbers are irritatingly inconsistent. Opening number “Belle” gets things off to a rocky start with dull shot compositions that too closely mirror the animated version, as well as some obvious lip sync issues. More painfully is that the same problems plague the funniest and most energetic of the original’s songs, “Gaston”, leaving it feeling oddly limp and hokey. Neither sequence takes advantage of the live action switch nor any of the technological innovations of the last fifteen years, settling for a shrug-worthy rehash.
On the other hand, the two highlights of the entire film are the spectacular, dynamically shot “Be Out Guest” sequence with Ewan McGregor at the fore, and a recreation of the beloved ballroom-set title track, sung this time by Emma Thompson. While most remakes these days tend to ignite skepticism amongst weary audiences, these sequences exemplify Disney’s ability to evade such criticism by marrying old-fashioned earnestness with top-shelf technology. The creative magnificence of these soaring, lavish showstoppers makes it difficult to accuse the film of having little ingenuity, or to complain that the original simply ‘looks good enough’ and thus invalidates another go.
At the same time as they break visual ground, both songs demonstrate the company’s respect for the original, leaving the central tone wholly unchanged. McGregor and Thompson channel original performers Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury and attain the same warmth, while both scenes contain just enough callbacks to their 1991 counterparts to feel reverent without being redundant. Disney’s winning formula is to maintain the heart and soul of their older catalogue while modernizing primarily through external means (thanks to the best special effects and musical talent that money can buy).
In addition to gradually raising the bar for technical excellence, Disney has been working over the past few years to revise the outdated social values of some of their earlier works, mainly through a pointed emphasis on diversity and equality. Yet unlike animated hits Tangled, Frozen, Zootopia and Moana, the social justice efforts of Beauty and the Beast feel half-hearted, if not laughable. The highly publicized and supposedly revolutionary “gay moment” is less a watershed moment of acceptance and more a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod of admission.
Meanwhile, the racial diversity on display is nothing more than trumped-up tokenism, made all the more obvious due to the relegation of the extremely talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw to a thankless side role (who has technically played her own ‘Belle’, and better). I’m certainly not arguing that there’s something innately wrong with having all-white leads, but if Disney is going to keep acting like they’re the new face of inclusion, feeble winks aren’t going to cut it. It not only undermines their own apparent goals, it undermines the hard-working actors of color whose side they claim to be on.
The social issues are ultimately insignificant compared to the very real narrative ones that plague the film. The first act feels noticeably rushed in an attempt to get Belle to Beast’s castle as soon as possible. The most baffling addition is an added thread revolving around Belle’s mother, which doesn’t serve any discernible purpose other than to take up time that could have been better used to establish a better emotional connection between her and her father, her sisters and Gaston.
Speaking of Gaston, Luke Evans is well cast in the role but the character and his comic relief sidekick LeFou (played by Josh Gad) remain wholly tangential until the end. They inject a sense of vitality and humor thanks to witty banter, but are too out-of-sync with the main plot to serve as a tangible threat. These problems could just as easily be leveled upon the original, but it’s too bad Disney missed their chance to rectify them to create a more cohesive story.
The other comic relief characters are the cursed castle staff members headlined by candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellen), and they are fantastic in every way. Their designs are clever and imaginative while their intentionally janky movements are perfectly animated to humorous effect. It’s true that their more ‘realistic’ look allows for limited facial expressiveness compared to the googly-eyed cartoon versions, but each of the voice actors (including Mbatha-Raw, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald) bring them to life by tempering the cutesy, wholesome dialogue with sharp delivery.
Beauty and The Beast does little to pander to audiences, refusing to force an unnecessary ‘attitude’ or the heavy-handed irony that’s in style these days. Like the modern Cinderella and Jungle Book, the movie is unafraid to be schmaltzy and simplistic because it believes strongly enough in the moral core of the story it tells. At the same time, it doesn’t rest solely on the original’s laurels by providing spectacle that begs to be seen on a big screen. Though inconsistencies in the narrative, performances and musical numbers keep this the lesser Beauty, Condon does an impressive job of threading the needle between old-fashioned and newfangled to create a crowd-pleasing hit of sweet, pretty nostalgia.
Score: 3 out of 5