This review contains SPOILERS.
By Molly Jane Kremer. I first saw Disney’s now-classic Beauty and the Beast when I was eight years old in the winter of 1991. It was thrilling, smart, sad, funny, and breathtakingly lovely — I was enamored immediately. Belle, the film’s bookish and “odd” heroine, remains an icon for generations of children (especially the nerdy ones), so it would seem an absolute no-brainer for Disney to add it to their ever-expanding list of live-action animation remakes.
For one, the little boys and girls who grew up opening video cassette clamshells from the Disney Renaissance now have children of their own to take to the movies, and the adaptable properties from that era are nigh endless. 2007’s Enchanted seemed to open Disney’s eyes to the CGI possibilities of live-action fairy tales, and we’ve had a few years to view the varied results since then, though critically there have been fewer hits (The Jungle Book) than misses (Maleficent, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland).
1991’s Beauty and the Beast offers arguably the richest material for a Disney live-action adaptation, but any attempt to do so would guarantee unfair comparisons to a film so groundbreaking it became the first animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It would also beg a common question regarding remakes of critically acclaimed, universally beloved films: why bother?
That question becomes especially relevant when discussing 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, an oftentimes too faithful adaptation of the 1991 masterpiece. While its trailers may have plucked lines from the original, the film itself is so similar to the animated version overall that the latter’s screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, has been specifically added to the credits. (Even tiny visual flourishes, like Belle pulling a kerchief over her head when singing “his little wife”, are decidedly identical.) Such a tight congruence makes Disney’s latest film feel intimate, if simultaneously foreign and unsettling.
Emma Watson exhibits intelligence and grace as Beauty’s eponymous heroine, but little passion or energy. Her part is at least written with slightly more agency and depth than in the original, but despite her great charm, Watson does little new with the character. However, Dan Stevens (currently burning up DoomRocket HQ hearts and minds on FX’s Legion) gives the Beast a wry sense of humor and a whole bunch of awkward sweetness, although the digital rendering on his bestial countenance approaches the uncanny at times. (And his makeup during the prologue is the Versailles glam of Louis XIV’s dreams.)
Luke Evans is surprisingly enjoyable as Gaston, who becomes incrementally more villainous as the film goes on. Gaston’s songs endure a few modifications, from previously unheard lyrics by the late Howard Ashman (“Who can make up these endless refrains like Gaston?”), which Evans belts out with gusto. Interactions between him and LeFou (a delightful and well-cast Josh Gad) have wonderful chemistry and real humor. Kevin Kline eschews all the slapstick buffoonery of father Maurice’s previous incarnation and adds an aura of melancholy to the additional backstory involving his late wife/Belle’s mother (Zoe Rainey). Ewan McGregor’s French accent as Lumiere is atrocious, but his charisma remains constant. Emma Thompson gives us her finest Angela Lansbury impression throughout her performance as Mrs. Potts, and it works.
Director Bill Condon, no stranger to movie musicals himself, somehow leaves the large group numbers feeling wearisome and plodding. During the first “Belle” dance sequence extras are visibly lip-syncing; the music is slowed down, with frequent (and unneeded) rests between verses or lines. Many of the group songs have this problem, reflective of the film’s need to unnecessarily pad itself to the two hour mark. Emma Watson is a passably good singer, but again puts little energy into her songs, sounding like middling, mostly unimaginative Disney karaoke. Luke Evans and Dan Stevens, however, both project to the back of the room. They put real oomph into their verses.
The film clocks in at around two hours ten minutes (forty minutes longer than the original) and those minutes drag at points, though the added time does attempt to mend old plot holes (there’s now a stated reason why the villagers don’t remember that enormous castle up the road). Character arcs are improved upon and expanded: we’re told Gaston was a captain in some bloody war (he looks back on his ignominious exploits fondly); Belle’s mother is seen, briefly, in flashback; and we find out that the Beast’s father apparently helped sow his son’s darker nature. Unfortunately many of these new details are merely touched upon before being abandoned entirely.
The production design in this film is no less than stunning; it leans heavily on the ornate baroque and rococo interior design of the original film, but seeing the ornate pillars and family paintings and vaulted ceilings realized as part of the film’s lived-in environments is a revelation. The costuming is wondrous — even if Belle’s new gold gown seems to have an inordinately large amount of haters — and surprisingly true to the 1991 film, and it’s consistent to the movie’s eighteenth-century France period setting. (Historical accuracy being a feat Disney films often squidge on.)
Despite a frequent lack of energy and originality, there are certainly moments of joy in Beauty and the Beast — most notably during a surprise drag makeover during the climactic battle scene, a memorable if cringey carryover from the 1991 film which now offers an adorable wink and a delightful sashay. In spite of those sporadic highlights, Beauty and the Beast may not be the perfect and pure paragon the original film was, but it is certainly a pleasant enough idyll. It’s certainly good enough motivation to re-watch its predecessor.
Directed by Bill Condon.
Produced by David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman.
Screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos.
Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson.
Rated PG for some light gunplay, which weird, right?
6.5 out of 10