“Tale as old as time/Song as old as rhyme…”
Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast feels like the most expensive cosplay ever. A live-action/CG-heavy remake that’s too beholden to Disney’s 1991 classic of the same name, the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture, to justify its existence, yet too inauthentic and calculated to recapture the original’s whimsical warmth, it’s a deathly middle-ground effort. Too richly realized to ignore, yet too uninvolving to engage you, it’s a shaggy, nearly-shambolic re-adaptation, one that wants to offer a more expansive, progressive take on the beloved fable, but is sadly uninterested in moving beyond tired story mechanics. If you like your nostalgia served cold and half-hearted, then you’ll find yourself in the right audience with Condon’s bloated, overlong, studio notes-heavy latest.
It’s a tale as old as time, but if you’re unfamiliar with the material, it follows Belle (Emma Watson), a bright-eyed bookworm in a lovely French village town that doesn’t understand her. She’s friendly-but-introverted, optimistic-but-reserved. She buries her head in book-after-book and dreams about life away from her shabby quarters, particularly divorced from her pesky neighbors, local misogynists and, notably, a particularly brutish admirer, the handsome-but-boastful Gaston (Luke Evans, in a rare inspired turn). Living in a secluded house with her kooky-but-caring inventor father Maurice (Kevin Kline, in what might honestly be the film’s best, most human performance), Belle lives a simple existence, even with Gaston’s insistent hand in marriage, but that’ll soon change when Maurice’s recent trip through the forest takes a horrific turn down a windy path towards a mysterious castle.
Battling unexpected snow and ravenous wolves, Maurice winds up in the darkened residence of the shadowy, intimidating Beast (Dan Stevens), along with his spirited butlers and caretakers, in the form of anamorphic household appliances like candles, clocks, drawers, teapots, teacups, feather dusters and pianos. Not one to welcome guests, the horrid Beast locks Maurice in his dungeon, where he’ll spend the rest of his days. That’s, of course, before his daughter offers to take his imprisoned place.
It’s a brave, selfless act in a house guarded by a selfish, menacing brute. But he wasn’t always that way. The Beast was once a human himself, but his arrogance towards a local witch (Hattie Morahan) deformed him to be the ugly creature he became. As a result, the Beast and his loyal servants must find the Beast’s true love, the one who’ll break the terrible spell before the last petal on the guarded, enchanted rose falls to the ground. Of course, that won’t be easy —particularly with the Beast’s prickly attitude. But, thankfully, Belle is a forgiving soul and, while their relationship doesn’t begin healthily, she soon sees the human buried underneath that mountain of fur, rage, and horns. From there, whether or not you know the story, you can make an educated guess where things will go…
Condon’s Beauty and the Beast fixes a lot of the problems found inherently throughout the original. For instance, Belle is more developed and more independent, prone to thinking for herself and acting more rationally than her animated counterpart. Gaston, similarly, is a little more three-dimensional. He’s still inherently evil, malicious, indignant and self-righteous, mind you, but in a slightly more believable — or, perhaps, developed — manner. At least, as far as Disney movies go. There’s an explanation for why the servants, which includes Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Chip (Nathan Mack), Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald) and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), are cursed to a similar fate as their master, even though they seemingly did nothing wrong. They also make a point to note that, no, not every intimate object around the castle is secretly alive. A brush can be a brush.
But in their efforts to enrich the familiar narrative, not unlike Kenneth Branagh’s more successful Cinderella, Condon and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulous (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) weigh the film down with heavy exposition, extra moodiness and somber intentions. None of which is welcomed and most of it is unnecessary. For instance, there’s an added subplot involving Belle’s absent mom that’s nice in theory, but it adds almost nothing substantial to the narrative-at-large. All it does is drag the film down and make everyone depressed for five minutes. It’s supposed to tie together with another hinted subplot involving the Beast’s abusive relationship with his parents but, again, it’s not focused on enough to feel earned, nor is it established well enough to be deftly intricated. There are a lot of great ideas that are wonderful on paper thrown into the mix, notably the recently-controversial decision to make Josh Gad’s perfectly-cast Le Fou Disney’s first openly homosexual character, but they’re either half-developed or ineffective in their turgid execution. Hell is full of good meanings, they sometimes say.
But what truly holds Beauty and the Beast (2017) back from reaching the same heights as Beauty and the Beast (1991) is its dearth of charm. There’s no emotionally-involving chemistry shared between the Beast and Belle this time around; they’re together mainly because the script told them to be. That’s not to say Watson and Stevens are bad. In fact, Stevens is quite good, away from some unconvincing CG, while Watson is perfectly fine, away from some autotune-heavy musical numbers. But there’s no sizzle between them. There’s not enough pull between them to convince you that this hideous Beast and beauty woman are really in love with one another. For all its faults, the original made you believe in the core relationship. It showed the sensitive side to the Beast as often as his vicious side, and you could see why Belle would fall for him — at least by movie standards.
You also quickly learn to love the talking appliances in the original ’90s version, whereas this time you only sorta/kinda endear to them, once you get used to their moderately grotesque appearances. Seriously, the special effects artists deserve props for not making these creatures completely, totally hideous in their semi-realistic depiction. But that, in a nutshell, is the key problem: the original film was a lightning-in-a-bottle success, one that did not come easily, and it deserves to stay animated.
Disney’s newest Beauty and the Beast is a gorgeous-looking, competently-made recreation of the studio’s former glory, but it’s also sluggish, monotonous, misshapen and overcompensating. While not nearly as soulless as it could’ve been, it’s still unforgivably shallow, a mandated retelling largely without clear purpose. There’s a lot one can compliment here, from the lavish costume designs to the top-notch production designs to excellent supporting performances from McKellen, Gad and, of course, Kline. But in a time where nostalgic wish-fulfillment tends to drown audiences in excessive overindulgence, it’s hard to ignore the Mouse House studio heads hovering around the production, making sure this one is practically guaranteed to bring in all those dollars. If you merely want to revisit these classic tunes and characters, regardless if they’re animated or not, then be my guest. Otherwise, lock yourself in your own little castle and stick with the original. It still holds up pretty well.