With Disney currently raking in enough piles of money to put Scrooge McDuck’s Money Bin to shame, it seemed like only a matter of time before audiences would get a live-action re-imagining of one of their modern classics. Beauty and the Beast is special for many and it represents a high water mark for the Disney Renaissance. Given how well the live-action remakes of The Jungle Book and Cinderella turned out, one could justify the existence of this latest film quite easily. However, the reverence for this relatively recent (1991) classic seems to have been part of its own undoing. While confidently made and enjoyable enough, this beast seems to have little going on underneath the surface.
This was part of my worry upon seeing initial trailers for the film. While the other remakes were largely used as an inspiration point for their live-action counterparts (with key scenes kept intact), Beauty and the Beast feels completely indebted to its animated predecessor. While some attempts are made to expand the characters a bit, the film seems to have far less ambition than something like Pete’s Dragon. Rarely does this film color outside the pre-established lines and as a result, audiences will simply be amused by seeing humans, sets and CG replacing the hand-drawn animation, rather than be in awe of what has come from this new cinematic experience.
To the film’s credit, things start out quite strong. An opening prologue provides better context for why the Prince (Dan Stevens) was transformed into the Beast. The opening musical number shows off director Bill Condon’s skills in putting together an elaborately choreographed sequence, full of color and various moving parts. Given the regular human interactions, we also get to have fun watching Emma Watson’s Belle stand up to Luke Evans’ Gaston and cherishing time spent with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline). Even the initial introduction of the Beast’s castle allows for some intrigue.
Sadly, it is the extended period of time spent in the castle that highlights how a film like this plays better in animated form (to say nothing of the innovative Jean Cocteau classic from 1946). Given how devoted this film is to the 1991 version, we are seeing a complete recreation of a gloomy castle filled with living inanimate objects. Despite the efforts of Ewan McGregor (sporting a hilariously over-the-top French accent), Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson and others voicing these objects, it was hard to shake off the strangeness of seeing CG versions of these things. Rather than feel charming, I felt like Lumiere and friends were suffering slow torture in a mostly drab environment.
Similarly, no favors are done for the Beast, who always stands out as a computer creation, rather than an initially gruff and eventually sympathetic screen presence. As much as I don’t try to put down the use of CG, because it’s a filmmaking tool like anything else (even if it can be overused by some), this is an instance where I do believe an elaborate makeup effect would have been much more beneficial. The Beast’s face is a distraction and rather than be won over by the romance, I found myself more concerned with how Watson, as smart as she and the character of Belle are, would buy into all of this.
Fairing much better are all the things outside of the castle and by all of the things, I mean Evans as Gaston. For an actor who has been largely stuck in roles requiring him to brood (The Hobbit, Dracula Untold), it must have been a great relief to play the boisterous blow-hard. Evans goes big here and it works. The same can be said for Josh Gad’s LeFou, Gaston’s loyal sidekick, as the two share a great dynamic that provides plenty of laughs. If anything, the film practically makes Gaston too likable, making me question whether or not I should really be rooting against the guy looking to win a wife over the monster that locked a woman in his castle due to random circumstances. Of course, the film has to manufacture some clear cut reasons for us to root against Gaston, which ultimately underlines how padding the film creates problems.
While the animated film is a lean 84 minutes, this live-action update crosses over the two hour mark and feels long. Time is spent on a couple of new songs and some added character moments, but they do little to really enhance the overall story. It ends up feeling drawn out and reducing the impact of a story that doesn’t have to try that hard to get across its idea (regardless of the darker implications some may find with how this romance functions).
Fortunately most will be inclined to take the film for what it is and I did for the most part as well. When not concerning myself with how terrible I would feel being stuck as a clock for a decade, I did enjoy most of the musical numbers. “Be Our Guest” seemed to be given the royal treatment as far as setting up the song as if the movie was well aware of how excited everyone was going to be for it, but it and the others all played quite well. Similarly, while not as much of a standout element compared to Cinderella, the production and costume design was effective enough. Even while stuck in the castle, colors really popped and many of the visual effects helped to add a sense of joy fit for a Disney fairy tale.
My admiration may only be extending to recognizing the effort put into preserving the spirit of the animated film, but there is an enjoyable film here. I only wish there were more steps taken push deeper into other elements from the original source material (or the various incarnations). As it stands, while competent enough, the glitz and glamour of this remake did not shine brightly enough to make it feel all that necessary. Instead, it seems more like a very expensive tribute to the 1991 film now exists and will certainly help keep cash flowing into that Money Bin.