Review: “Beauty and the Beast” (2017)

4 out of 5 stars.

There’s a point in director Bill Condon’s live-action version of Disney’s animated classic “Beauty and the Beast” where I knew right off that I was going to love the movie, and that point comes no more than two or three minutes into the film.  The opening sequence that details the curse set upon a conceited French prince that transforms him into a hideous beast and his household staff into inanimate objects doesn’t just set up the film’s plot, but it sets up the tone of the film as well.  We see a swirl of extravagant costumes, garishly made-up characters, and an aria (one of four news songs added to this remake) sung by Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald) that enhances the frantic frenzy of the prince’s shallow lifestyle.  It’s different, as well as much darker, than the same sequence in its animated predecessor.  But there’s also narration by Hattie Morahan, who plays the Enchantress who places the curse on the prince, and that’s not unlike the opening narration in the animated film.  This scene offers a glimpse at the wonders in store for the rest of the film, but also lets the viewer know that what follows will be a combination of old and new material—and it’s a combination that makes this film about as close to a perfect remake as one can get.

Emma Watson plays Belle, the intelligent French (I use that term very loosely, because let’s be real, Ewan McGregor as Lumiere is the only actor in this film who even pretends to be French) girl who longs to escape her small (and small-minded) town and see what else is out in the world.  She lives with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline), a creator of music boxes who gets lost in the woods while making deliveries and is imprisoned by the Beast.  Belle takes his place and lives in the Beast’s castle, where the household immediately begins doing everything possible to get her to fall in love with the hot-tempered Beast—because the only way the curse will be broken will be if the Beast falls in love with someone who loves him in return.

If you love the story in the animated Disney classic, then that’s good, because you’re going to get the exact same story here.  Out of all of Disney’s live-action adaptation of their animated films so far, “Beauty and the Beast” is the closest to a straight-up remake by far.  This adaptation follows the original more than faithfully, ripping everything from exact dialogue to exact shot composition for many scenes.  The 1991 “Beauty and the Beast” is widely regarded as Walt Disney Animation’s greatest film, and it’s so beloved by people all over the world, that one can’t help but wonder if the filmmakers were too afraid to stray too far from the source.  At the same time, the film contains enough new material that this never gets annoying or repetitive, and even those familiar scenes are so well done that you don’t get the feeling that you’d rather be watching the animated film instead (with the exception of the famed ballroom scene; Angela Lansbury, we miss you).  Some of that new material is taken from the original French fairytale, as well as Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live-action version, “La belle et la bete”—like, for instance, the circumstances surrounding Maurice’s capture by the Beast.  Some of the new information answers questions that were previously left unanswered—like how the whole village somehow forgets that they have a prince and there’s a freaking huge castle in the woods a few miles away.  Some of it includes new backstories for some of the characters, most notably Belle, who has an entire sequence where she (and the audience) finally learn what happened to her mother.  The 1991 film is beautiful in its simplicity, and none of those sort of additions really add anything necessary to the story (the final act is already drawn out longer than it needs to be), but it’s still a lovely and intriguing sequence.

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Luke Evans using antlers in all of his decorating as Gaston

That leads us to the film’s songs.  The new arrangements of old classics are lovely, and even with some of those the filmmakers manage to sneak in new material.  For example, “Gaston” includes previously unheard lyrics that were written by Howard Ashman for the animated film, but were deemed too dark for that movie and went unused.  There is also, as mentioned before, four new songs written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice for this movie, and each one of them, even when performed amongst these familiar classics, is fantastic.  It isn’t even so much that the songs themselves are good, but that they mesh well with the existing music, and that they are used at just the right moments in the film.  “Days in the Sun” is a song sung by Belle as well as the castle staff, allowing them to reminiscence about a time when they were free to leave the castle (and it’s much better and more effective that “Human Again,” a song written for, deleted, and later restored in the special edition of the animated “Beauty and the Beast” that serves a similar purpose).  “Evermore” gives the Beast the opportunity to express his feelings about Belle after she leaves him to go see her father, while “How Does a Moment Last Forever” is performed at different times in the film by Belle and her father, and serves as a door to exploring their backstories.

The delivery of these songs is for the most part fine, but not especially spectacular.  The ensemble cast is an odd mixture of Broadway stars (McDonald and Josh Gad, who plays LeFou) and big-name actors who have passable singing voices.  So while Watson is pleasant enough to listen to as she sings “Belle” or “Something More,” it’s easy to miss the big belting voice as Belle races into the field to sing about wanting adventure in the great wide somewhere.  And, as good a job as Emma Thompson does as Mrs. Potts, as alluded to before, Angela Lansbury is simply irreplaceable in that role, and in singing “Beauty and the Beast.”  The entire cast is good though—Watson appears born for this role, Stevens is both menacing and sympathetic as the Beast, Luke Evans brings the right amount of swagger and egocentricity as Gaston, Gad’s LeFou helps provide some comic moments, and Kevin Kline is wonderful to watch in a heartfelt performance as Maurice.  The castle staff includes Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, Thompson as Mrs. Potts and Nathan Mack as her son Chip, McDonald as Garderobe, Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette (whose name is inexplicably changed from Babette for this film).  They do a fine job in their roles, and it’s extra fun to see them turn into their human forms at the end.

The film’s main spectacles are the music numbers, which is really does go all out for.  “Be Our Guest” pull out all the stops for its colorful, Busby Berkeley-style routine.  “Gaston” is perhaps the most fun, with Evans, Gad, and the rest of the crew clearly relishing every moment as they sing and stomp through each line, while the opening number, “Belle,” gives us a glimpse at the protagonist’s “provincial life” with a huge cast of extras following her through the town.  But the film also excels in its quieter moments, particularly those between Belle and the Beast in the second act, and in some of those ballads that allow the characters to delve into their thoughts and feelings without getting lost in a flurry of dancers and props.  Big budget adaptations of musicals don’t often work; the effects overwhelm the music and the characters, as in “Les Mis” or “Into the Woods” (also produced by Disney).  But that isn’t the case here.  It isn’t exactly an old school musical, but it evokes many of those same feelings.

I mentioned effects before, and those are used both to this film’s advantage and disadvantage.  The environments that the characters inhabit, from the interiors and exteriors of Beast’s castle to the woods to the village are all exquisite, but most of it is also pretty obviously computer generated.  The film has an unnatural, glossy sheen as a result that is a bit off-putting, especially to those used to seeing the gorgeous hand-drawn backgrounds and animation in the original movie.

As good as this “Beauty and the Beast” is, it contains two major fails.  The first is design-related.  In attempting to achieve realism in the characters who live in Beast’s castle, the characters lose almost all their appeal and personality.  Sure, Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts all have faces, but their expressions get lost; Cogsworth’s eyes and mouth get lost amidst all the gears and things on his clock face, for instance, while Mrs. Potts’ face, which is just a design printed on her teapot body, doesn’t allow for much movement, so the sight of her belting out a tune just doesn’t feel right.  Some of the characters, like Cadenza and Garderobe, don’t really even have faces, they just express themselves through the physical characteristics of the object they were turned in to (Garderobe flaps open the doors of her wardrobe, while Cadenza’s teeth are basically the keys of his piano).  Prior knowledge of the 1991 film helps us like these characters anyway, but without that knowledge, it’s hard to know if these characters would be likeable at all.  Seeing as how this is a fantasy film, it wouldn’t have been too far-fetched for the designers to come up with a look for the characters that at least had, oh I don’t know, faces we could actually see.  On the flip side, the design of the Beast is almost too appealing.  Instead of making him look hideous and menacing, he looks rather…pretty.  And tame.  It doesn’t help that the character is so obvious CG, giving him an added glossy layer.

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Lumiere (voiced by Ewan McGregor)

Somewhat related to that is the issue of costumes and politics, which go hand in hand here, I promise.  For the most part, the costumes in this movie are gorgeous.  The castle guests in the beginning are sumptuously dressed, while the villagers are much simpler, yet still fashionable.  Belle’s blue dress that she wears for most of the film is an example of one of those simple, yet functional and stylish costumes that reflects her character.  But her gold ball gown, an iconic movie dress in and of itself, is a major let down.  In an attempt to make Belle more feminist, the designers decided to forego the use of corsets and hoop skirts (the typical undergarments of the time period this film in set in).  The result is not only a disappointing rendition of a famous dress that lacks any sort of vision, but also reflects a half-hearted attempt at making the movie feel unnecessarily modern.  The only portion of the film that seems to imply that Belle isn’t a fan of the current fashions is when she rids herself of her ball gown while taking off on a horse to save the Beast (a quick-change that I am still scratching my head over).  But just imagine how much more impressive it would be if Belle had to do everything she does in this film in a hoop skirt—only her personality, not her wardrobe, could make her less of a feminist.  And really, the only other scene that really draws attention to the town’s attitude toward women is when Belle is called out by the town’s schoolteacher for trying to teach a little girl how to read.  It isn’t especially ground-breaking (there’s no corset-burning, no Belle walking around vocally demanding equal rights), nor is the so-called “exclusively gay moment” that LeFou has (but that controversy has been unnecessarily drawn out already).  There could have been a different take on Belle’s response to Gaston’s pompous marriage proposal, but that doesn’t really happen in this version (much of Belle and Gaston’s early encounters are cut short)—and the “great adventure” Belle seeks still ends in marriage regardless.

The other major problem in the film has to do with an alteration in the plot.  In the original film, Belle doesn’t know anything about the Beast’s curse; she falls in love with him for him, and doesn’t know he’s really a human prince until he changes back at the end of the movie.  In this film, Belle finds out that the Beast is really a human who was cursed, and although she never learns that loving him is how the curse will end, it changes everything.  The beginnings of Belle’s sympathy for the Beast seem to start when she learns about the curse and realizes she wants to help him, not because she starts to see the real him underneath the angry outbursts and violent temper.  It’s lazy writing, as well as poor judgment; valuable screen time was taken from scenes that could have included future development of the two characters and their relationship, and put toward superfluous sequences (for instance, Beast can read in this version, depriving us of those nice moments where Belle reads to him).  Changing certain aspects of the plot for a remake isn’t a bad thing, but changing them for the worse certainly is.

Of course, there are going to be those who say that this “Beauty and the Beast” is pointless.  And, well, it is.  The 1991 film is as close to perfect as films can get.  And there’s something strange and rather off-putting surrounding this new phenomena of Disney creating live-action versions of their animated classics.  They’re cashing in on the nostalgia we all have for those movies, rather than creating new movies that are in a similar vein.  And yet, as against remakes as so many people seem to be, of course we’re going to watch these new adaptations and enjoy them, because if we loved the exact same thing in the original movie, why wouldn’t we love the exact same thing here?

But if “Beauty and the Beast” is pointless, it’s pointless in the most wonderful way possible.  It’s a joyous celebration of its predecessor, of musicals, and of classic fairytale storytelling.  And if Disney’s future live-action remakes continue the trend of combining new material with the old in a way that is artistic and entertaining, then maybe these pointless films aren’t such a terrible thing after all.

Runtime: 129 minutes. Rated PG.

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