Beauty and the Beast
It's no secret that there aren't a whole lot of new ideas left in Hollywood anymore. The death of the mid major movie (your $35 million budget film with respectable but not outrageous aspirations) has led to a studio-dominated box office filled with sequels, franchises, reboots and remakes. And none exemplifies this more than Disney, the amoeba of the film world that has systematically subsumed the likes of Marvel and Star Wars to become the name in blockbuster filmmaking. And while the animated division of Disney continues to flirt with originality (as original as a film like Moana, which trades heavily on eight decades of Disney animated storytelling), the live action side of things has taken to cannibalize itself through live action remakes of many of these beloved animated classics. These films have seen success, from the runaway box office of Alice in Wonderland through Cinderella and Maleficent and The Jungle Book, and Disney clearly seems to be enjoying themselves, putting more and more of these remakes in the pipeline. But whereas its initial forays into the trend were all classics from 50 or more years ago, 2017 marks their first attempt to update a classic film much of its audience would have had the chance to see in the theater: 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.
Choosing to resurrect the first ever animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards is a tall task, and Disney have enlisted Bill Condon to shepherd the project to the screen. Condon has had a fascinating roller coaster of a career, with ups (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, Dreamgirls) and, let’s say less-than-ups (Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, the final two Twilight movies). But he does have a pretty solid piece of source material to draw from. Writers Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter's War) have taken the tale and expanded it (this new Beauty and the Beast is about 40 minutes longer than its predecessor), but the skeleton remains the same. It’s still about Belle (Emma Watson), and she’s still a bookish outcast in her tiny little village, still dodging the romantic advances of muscle-with-legs Gaston (Luke Evans). She comes into contact with The Beast (Dan Stevens) after the disappearance of her father (Kevin Kline), who accidentally stumbled upon his hidden castle in the woods. The Beast was cursed for being an unfeeling cad in his younger princely days, with his servants turned into various household objects, and if the now hideous monster could feel true love before the wilting of a magic rose, he would be returned to his former self. With Belle in the castle, having chosen to replace her father as the Beast’s prisoner, his servants go to work to make them fall in love.
The easiest thing to notice about Beauty and the Beast is its choreography. The opening replaces the original’s storybook retelling of the cursing of the prince with a look into one of his opulent parties (again, this is 40 minutes longer), with endless patrons dancing through a giant ballroom, the camera swooping and turning, the edits coming fast and loose. It’s chaotic and it’s busy and it’s honestly often incomprehensible, an assault of the senses that threatens to tire you out before it has a chance to get going. The hope would be that the open is so aggressive as to contrast it with the sleepy simple life of Belle’s village, but that hope is soon dashed by Condon’s staging of Belle’s classic opening number, “Belle,” and the same chaos reigns. There’s a bit of that endemic to the song and Belle’s obliviousness to the outside world as she reads, but this is amped up to an undeniably extreme extent. It makes for a rather exhausting and deadening first twenty minutes. Condon also seems to be one of the sorts of directors who likes to throw objects at the screen to take advantage of the inevitable 3D conversion (my screening was in 2D, a blessing as the speed with which everything moves cannot bode well for the blurring effect of 3D technology,), gleefully chucking anything and everything everywhere during “Be Our Guest.” Watching this film often feels like a particularly difficult trip to the gym; it takes all your energy just to follow the action in a given scene.
When things quiet down (which happens more rarely than you might assume) it settles into something a bit more palatable. Dan Stevens does an admirable job aping Robby Benson’s bellows and growls, while successfully mapping The Beast’s transition from hard-hearted brute to the sort of person with which Belle could fall in love. The design of the servants is well-implemented, whether it’s Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and his sashaying style, or the cowardly and cantankerous Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), their individual personalities shining through the computer generated objects. And Kevin Kline is quite the treat, as he always reliably is. Perhaps surprisingly, Watson’s Belle isn’t particularly inspiring; she doesn’t quite seem to find the right balance in her characterization and comes off as a bit one note. Luke Evans has Gaston down pat, but Josh Gad’s LeFou seems to vary too much in his personality to get a real beat on him. So really, the characters are about as uneven as the film is. Some things work, but the aspects that don’t work seem to have more staying power, leading to a pretty disappointing filmgoing experience. It's all just in service to nothing. Nothing lies below the surface of this Beauty and the Beast. It's just empty, cynical nostalgia.
There was a simplicity to the 1991 Beauty and the Beast that Condon simply fails to replicate here. The additions to the story, whether it’s the expansion of the enchantress who initially applied the curse or some additional backstory involving Belle’s mother, all fall flat, as do the film’s new songs (gotta have some new songs to get that Best Original Song nomination at the Oscars). The film is otherwise simply too devoted to its predecessor, almost seeking to be a shot for shot remake at times, and you’re playing a dangerous game when you choose to stand directly in the shadow of one of Disney’s greatest animated features. The most direct and useful metric to employ when weighing the merits of a remake like Beauty and the Beast is this: does this film justify its own existence? In this case, the answer is a resounding no.