An adaptation of the Disney fairy tale about a monstrous-looking prince and a young woman who fall in love.
Do I really need to go over the plot? If Bill Condon’s “Beauty and the Beast” diverted from the well-known fairy tale at least a little bit, it may be worth the time. As it resolutely sticks to the original – only adding a few unnecessary tidbits to make it seem like an “update” – reading the synopsis again should do the trick: “A monstrous-looking prince and a young woman fall in love.” Neat, right?
What it does is accentuate the story’s multiple nonsensical aspects: Why do all the characters speak in different accents, if the events take place in France? Why would Belle attempt a complex escape from the Beast through a window, when nothing is really preventing her from walking out the door a few moments later? Why is her first escape attempt thwarted by wolves, while when the Beast finally lets her go, she gallops away with no issues? What’s up with her father stumbling upon the Beast’s castle, then being unable to find it, then Gaston finding it with the use of a mirror as a GPS device; the convenience of the castle’s geographical location fluctuates, depending on who’s traveling to or from it. Also: who lights the Beast’s candles? If you say “magic” is the answer to all those questions, I’ll have Cadenza shoot you with a piano key.
The film’s main theme is questionable, too. Let’s look at the Beast’s trajectory. At the start, he is a handsome, pompous, condescending, and self-absorbed rich bastard. It takes the worst torture ever to be inflicted upon a human – being turned into a gnarly werewolf – to make him abscond into isolation, delve into literature, and discover humanity (it’s either that or suicide, I’d assume). And then Belle is rewarded by having him turn back into the handsome jock that he was – and the film trails off with a “happily ever after.” My guess is, a few months later, Beast will have a few “Belles” on the side – you know, once the shock wears off and all. So much for the whole “beauty is sound within” thing.
The key to Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s animated classic was its simplicity and brevity. This is a very straightforward tale of acceptance, of not judging a book by its cover. The Hollywood remake tacks on an extra 40 minutes to the original’s 80-minute running length, packing it with fillers, such as redundant characters, a needless detour that deals with Belle’s mother’s death, and even more needless musical numbers. The Beast himself breaks into a morose song at one point; Dan Stevens may be a talented actor, but his nails-on-a-chalkboard crooning proves he should stick to his day job. It’s as if the filmmakers realized they couldn’t improve on the original so they just added padding, hoping audiences will see it as “fleshing out” the story.
After her stint as Hermione in the Harry Potter series, Emma Watson steadily rose to fame as the next “it” actress, for no discernible reason – unless one considers her roles in “The Bling Ring,” “This Is the End,” and “Noah” as revelatory. Finally getting the chance to step into the shoes of an iconic character, little Watson freezes up, emoting little beyond what’s on the surface. She never brings Belle to life, not for a moment making one believe she is a strong-willed Disney princess, something Auli’i Carvalho pulled off with aplomb in the recent “Moana” – by just using her voice, mind you! – or, say, Amy Adams did with a healthy dose of self-awareness and wit in “Enchanted.”
What’s even worse, Belle’s relationship with the pile of digital goo that is the Beast, doesn’t come close to emulating the epic romantic swoop of the 1991 classic. Despite Dan Stevens’ best efforts, he gets utterly lost underneath the pixels (watch him in the astonishing FX show “Legion” instead). When it came to THAT ballroom dancing scene, all I could think about was Watson in the embrace of a green-suited Stevens, a large team of computer nerds making sure his digital hair coils around her fingertips just so.
Josh Gad, the voice of Olaf in “Frozen,” is better off behind the camera, once again coming off as a low-rate Jack Black. He mugs it up as LeFou, whose homosexuality apparently wasn’t obvious enough in the original film and needed to be amped up, Hollywood-style, for 2017. Gad’s flamboyant approach to the role sparked controversy in some right-wing states for the wrong reason – if there’s anything to be offended by, it’s how poorly he represents homosexuals, his character a starry-eyed fool, a back-stabber lacking intelligence, individuality, and self-awareness.
The object of LeFou’s utterly unjustified affection, Gaston, is played by Luke Evans, who annunciates each evil sentence with so much evil, he is evil incarnate. I love Emma Thompson, but she doesn’t quite nail the gargantuan task of honoring Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Potts, whose performance of the titular number was so memorable. The new iteration? Emma’s vocal chords just aren’t there, I’m afraid. The two actors who come out unscathed are the great Ian McKellen, infusing the curmudgeon Cogsworth with much charm, and Kevin Kline, who manages to somehow work his magic and, in the few scenes he’s in, lend Maurice some real gravitas.
The production design is predictably incredible, although again, heavily relying on obvious CGI to move the story along. The colors are vibrant, the film is chock full of diversity – both racial, sexual, bestial, you name it – and everything is polished to a T, as we’ve come to expect from films, whose budgets could bankroll a small African country for decades. A “strong feminist role-model,” Belle is told by Gaston that “the only children [she] should be concerned with are [her] own,” causing a reverberating gasp in the theater. The bigwigs made sure all the boxes were ticked and a “perfect” confection was presented to the viewer, designed to elicit such reactions.
However, it’s the imperfections that sometimes accentuate the beauty, and here it/she gets lost in all the superficial gloss. The film doesn’t strive to shock, awe, or inspire with a never-before-seen sequence, shot or effect – something totally doable in a reportedly $160 million production. The press screening I attended was continuously filled with annoying applause (literally at the end of each grand statement or musical number!), as if the audience were celebrating how well the new one pays tribute to the original, instead of being silently mesmerized by the originality of the approach, like, say, “The Jungle Book” audiences were. While I oppose the idea of remakes in general, at least Favreau put an interesting spin on the proceedings, paying homage to both the book and the Disney classic – oh, and it had BILL MURRAY as BALOO.
“Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Maleficent,” “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book” (which I actually liked – read my review here – but I repeat, that was John Favreau at the helm), now this, and we have “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King” coming up. One could argue that the reasoning behind remaking all those animated classics into mega-budget, live-action fare is to introduce them to a new generation, remind them that those stories are timeless and important. I’d argue: those remakes proved highly successful, and the hacks’ wallets started buzzin’, “more! more!”. I’d argue: there’s no real reason behind remaking “Beauty and the Beast,” pretty much shot-by-shot, except to cash in on a well-known property’s success. I’d argue: let those kids watch the originals, for chrissakes. They are readily available on Blu-ray at the Amazon website near you.
In theaters Friday, March 17th