Beauty and the Beast
Directed by Bill Condon
Opens March 17
It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as Prince of Tides—Beauty and the Beast’s fellow nominee for the Best Picture of 1991 at the Academy Awards. That year’s animated story of a beautiful woman who falls for a cursed, beastly man dates back much further, of course, but the new semi-live-action version of Beauty and the Beast isn’t retelling an old fairy tale; it’s retelling the specific ’91 cartoon. It’s just the latest in a series of experiments in back-catalog mining that have become a regular presence on the release schedule, following The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella, and Maleficent. To accompany Disney’s Feature Animation, Disney’s Pixar, Disney’s Lucasfilm, and Disney’s Marvel Studios, here is Disney’s Disney.
As with Disney’s previous self-adaptations, the story isn’t one-for-one with its predecessor (it hardly could be, with a full 45-minute increase in running time), but it’s pretty damn close, with plenty of repurposed dialogue. Belle (Emma Watson) is still an unsatisfied, book-loving resident of a “poor, provincial” town in France, where she lives with her slightly daffy inventor father Maurice (Kevin Kline, so good to see you), weathering the expectations of town hunk Gaston (Luke Evans) that she will relent in her distaste for his machismo, and marry him. When Maurice stumbles into the lair of a prince (Dan Stevens) cursed with the form of a hideous beast (computer animation and make-up), Belle trades places with him, and an awkward courtship begins.
The new version, directed by Bill Condon, adds some depth to the relationship between Belle and her father, played with a light, warm touch by Kline and, perhaps less expected, to the relationship between Gaston and his diminutive flunky LeFou (Josh Gad, in the role he may have been genetically engineered to play). Gad, too, makes his character a little warmer and less caricatured than he might have, and even Evans’s Gaston has a few, fleeting moments where he seems a touch more empathetic than he did back in ’91, when he functioned as a sly parody of entitled Disney-prince masculinity. In fact, for a movie that refashions a G-rated cartoon into a PG-rated sorta-live-action fantasy, some of it feels softened and less vivid, especially the Beast. The makeup and effects render him not unlike Beast from the X-Men movies, except maybe cuddlier—he’s too fuzzy and catlike to register the initial menace from the cartoon. Realizing a man-beast photorealistically could have been a glorious nightmare, one that Condon politely sidesteps. Watson is likably plucky and her Belle is a little more explicitly feminist than the earlier version (and more intellectually challenging; she and the Beast bond over Shakespeare). But as with Cinderella, these bits of extra shading don’t give the movie much more depth.
What this Beauty has going for it over its Disney remake predecessors is the best collection of songs to ever grace an animated musical—for that matter, one of the best collections of songs in any cinematic musical, full stop. The Jungle Book had game celebrity voices sing a few bars of its famous tunes, but Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is a full-on musical, even adding some additional songs to the narrative. The new stuff mostly sounds like mediocre Broadway, but how could it not? Alan Menken and the late lyricist Howard Ashman achieved something close to perfection with the original’s songs and score; if they make songs from The Lion King sound less great by comparison, a batch of Menken-and-company filler songs don’t have much chance. Anyway, the upside is the sheer joy of hearing even covers of tunes like the introductory “Belle” and the celebratory “Be Our Guest” (sung by Ewan McGregor, rocking an uncertain French accent as the living candlestick once voiced by Jerry Orbach). And it’s fun to watch Condon attempt to bring them to life.
Problem is, Condon belongs to that strange middle class of filmmakers who make movie musicals but don’t seem to understand exactly how or why. He’s not as clumsy as Adam Shankman or weirdly antagonistic to the form as Rob Marshall, but as with Dreamgirls, assembling a musical number with any urgency or rhythm mostly eludes him. There are moments, to be sure—the camera staying on Watson’s face as she twirls through “Belle,” threatening to spin into delirium; the CG-assisted pantry fireworks at the climax of “Guest”; Evans and Gad giving “Gaston” their all—but Condon often goes in too close, or cuts too laboriously. Many of the numbers lumber to life before eventually picking up a little speed towards the end.
Beauty and the Beast is a handsome production, and not a chore to watch, even if its pageant-like qualities start wearing thin somewhere around the three-quarters mark. It’s not that the sensation of watching live action and computer animation attempt to recreate what was once mostly pen, ink, and paint is inherently or even consistently unpleasant. It’s more complicated, at once comforting and eerie—both spectacular and, sometimes, weirdly uncinematic. I think I’ve sorted out why. The feelings it conjures are more akin to those that course through the brain while experiencing a particularly well-designed attraction at a Disney theme park: Appreciation and sometimes delight, in the face of beautiful craft which is nonetheless dedicated primarily to reminiscence. Disney park attractions are more immersive than their movies, but they’re usually not more expressive, or more emotionally resonant. So it is with Beauty and the Beast in 2017: It’s an experience—and one that a lot of people will enjoy, especially in the company of other fans of the 1991 original. Obsessive rewatches may not follow, though. The older movie earned devotion; this one ultimately just basks in it.