'Beauty and the Beast'
While Jon Favreau’s high-tech take on ‘The Jungle Book’ may have reinvented enough elements of the Disney animated classic to justify its existence, the live-action reboot of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ feels like little more than a restaging of the 1991 cartoon triumph. It’s nice enough and pretty enough, but why does this need to exist?
That’s been the question hanging over many of the recent live-action remakes of Disney’s back catalog for those old enough to remember the source material. While some of the projects, including Favreau’s blockbuster and the admittedly underwhelming ‘Maleficent’, have dared to do something new with their easily marketable and recognizable properties, others such as Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Cinderella’ and now ‘Beauty and the Beast’ feel more like expensive photocopies than actual movies. Granted, they’re all well-made and lovely enough to tickle eyeholes, but the remakes are such obvious clones that they tend to feel like Disney’s cash-grab direct-to-video sequels that gobbled up Blockbuster Video shelves for years by pandering to brand loyalty and overly forgiving young audiences. If so many talented Hollywood players are going to spend years producing movies for the Disney vaults, why not let them actually add some of their personality to the material?
As you may have gathered, the plot for this one is exactly the same as the animated version. Emma Watson plays Belle, a headstrong bookworm tired of country village life with her loving father (Kevin Kline) and anxious to find some adventure. Luke Evans plays Gaston, the macho buffoon obsessed with Belle, while Josh Gad is his manservant. Eventually, Belle ends up trapped in a castle by a Beast (Dan Stevens) who was cursed to look all furry and ugly for being rude years ago. Finding true love is his only hope of retaining his old prettiness. It seems impossible thanks to that whole beast thing. On the plus side, all of his old servants are now lovable living bits of furniture to help him through the days – including a ridiculously-accented candlestick (Ewan McGregor), a bumbling clock (Ian McKellen), and a sweet cockney teapot (Emma Thompson). Together, the living household might just be able to help Belle love the Beast. Think it might happen? Spoiler: Yes, definitely.
Yeah, the story is the same, as are the big songs and plenty of the dialogue as well. In a way, it’s like the world’s most expensive fan film homage. To be fair, it’s put together well enough. The production is absolutely lavish. Both Watson and Evans bring dignity and playful humor to their roles, which helps provide the illusion of three dimensions. Director Bill Condon (‘Dreamgirls’ and the last two ‘Twilight’ piles of trash) has a certain flair with set-pieces that ensures the movie moves along at a quick pace while always looking spectacular. McGregor, McKellen, Thompson and company all clearly have fun recreating their iconic comedic relief roles. Everyone tried to make this live-action restaging as good as it could be, despite the utter superfluousness of the production.
Some new additions push the previously brisk 84-minute cartoon to over two hours. A few extra songs do little beyond proving how beautifully written the music in the original was. Some added backstory to Belle and the Beast’s past feels needlessly dark in an attempt to make the project more serious for reasons best known to the filmmakers. These additions add little beyond running time. The only nice new material comes by deliberately diversifying the cast, and giving us a few scenes to explain why Belle suddenly falls for the Beast beyond Stockholm Syndrome. Both are welcome even if they slow down the momentum.
More than anything else, this live-action remake serves as a reminder of just how good the original movie was and the benefits of animation. As pretty as Condon’s film might be to behold, it doesn’t match the hand-drawn beauty or the stylized choreography and character design only possible in the animation medium. In particular, the character designs don’t hold a candle (no pun intended) to the original.
All that being said, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ 2.0 is a good time for what it is. Those who are deeply nostalgic for the ’90s classic will get all of the warm and fuzzy feelings they’re hoping for, while young audiences unfamiliar with the original will likely love what they’re served. Even though there’s no real need for this movie to exist, it will be undoubtedly be successful and likely naysayers like myself will be dismissed for clinging too dearly to the past. I doubt anyone could watch both movies and consider the new one better. (Not to mention the fact that Jean Cocteau’s genuinely magical 1946 take on the tale remains the best version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ on film to date.) However, it’s also hard to look at this movie and consider it a failure. It works. It’s fun. It’s pretty. It’s well made. It’s just unnecessary.