The “tale as old as time” is a story that will seemingly always be around in our culture. Beauty and the Beast has seen numerous incarnations over the years ever since it’s first literary introduction and was likely just as prolific a narrative even before then. The story and message behind it are universal to every nation and culture, and that’s the idea that love transcends beauty and that a person should never be judged by their physical appearance alone. It’s the narrative basis behind every opposites attract story we’ve ever seen, as well as a definitive example of a redemption story-line arc that we also find very common in our pop culture. But the story itself remains popular in it’s purest form through pretty much every type of media. We all enjoy seeing the beautiful Belle find the pure soul buried down inside the twisted form of the Beast and help him find his humanity once again, ultimately allowing him to return to his natural form. With it’s fairy tale elements and universal appeal, this story has naturally been a beloved one for filmmakers. Jean Cocteau made his famous French production, and it’s become one of the most influential movies ever made. But perhaps the best known version today is the 1991 animated feature from Disney. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was groundbreaking in itself, capturing the essence of the original fairy tale, while at the same time giving it a modern sensibility, with particular regard to the depiction of a more independent and free thinking heroine in Belle. The movie would go on to be a high water mark in animation and would also go down in history as the first animated feature to receive a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Since it’s release, the animated Beauty and the Beast has left it’s mark on the classic story, and has gone on to influence many more adaptations, including this most recent one that takes it’s cues directly from this version.
Disney is in an interesting spot right now. After many years of producing successful animated features, they’ve built up an impressive library that stands on it’s own. But, while they still continue to release new animation every year, they have in recent years discovered that there is a nostalgia market that they can capitalize upon through the power of aura surrounding their “Disney Vault” of classics. This has sometimes been a sword with two ends for Disney, because while they do make a lot of money exploiting their classics of the past, they also run the risk of cheapening their brand over time. You definitely saw this a lot in the decade long era of Direct-to-Video sequels that the studio was putting out; a practice that, while profitable, ultimately cheapened the Disney name. Now, Disney is mining the vaults once again, only this time they are taking their animated classics and giving them lavish live action make-overs. This too has resulted in mixed results. On the one hand, some good adaptations have resulted like 2015’s Cinderella and 2016’s Pete’s Dragon. On the other hand, you also get misfires like Maleficent (2014) and Alice in Wonderland (2010). The big risk with these types of productions is that they need to create an identity all their own in order to justify their existence; otherwise, all it’s going to make us think about is that we’d rather be watching the original animated classic instead. The stakes are even higher when it’s an adaptation of one of Disney’s most beloved properties, which is the pressure that is put on this new adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. Let’s face it, this new adaptation has some mighty shoes to fill, so the question is it a beauty in the making or is it forever doomed to be a Beast?
The story is familiar to everyone who’s seen the original movie, but it also does surprisingly deviate at times for both good and bad reasons. We are introduced to Belle (Emma Watson), who is ridiculed by the villagers of the small provincial town she calls home because of her independent spirit and her refusal to conform to their outdated ways. Her days in the village are made even harder by the sexual advances made by her overbearing admirer Gaston (Luke Evans), who has just returned from battle. He is accompanied by his companion LeFou (Josh Gad), who has his own latent desires towards his brawny friend. Belle’s creative spirit is still supported by her artistically inclined father Maurice (Kevin Kline), who promises to bring her back a rose every time he leaves town. On one such trip, he finds himself lost in the woods, where one area seems to be perpetually snowbound. Within, he finds a massive castle where he finds shelter. Upon entering, Maurice finds that it is enchanted, with the household objects coming alive and talking to him. He tries to escape, but remembers that he still needs to find a rose for Belle, to which he finds one in the castle’s gardens. Once he picks one, he immediately is nabbed by the castle’s master; a hideous looking Beast (Dan Stevens). Upon learning of her missing father, Belle sets out to find him. Upon reaching the castle, she finds Maurice held captive and pleads with the Beast that she’ll take his place. Now a captive, Belle adjusts to life in this crumbling castle, and acquaints herself with the enchanted staff, including the candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), the mantle clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellan) and the tea pot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson). And from them, she learns of the curse put on the castle, and how it’s all tied to a singular wilting rose that when it loses it’s final petal, it will doom them to this state for all time.
Throughout this movie, there are plenty of nice throwbacks to the original story as well as some welcome references to Cocteau’s classic. However, the majority of the film is a retread of the Disney animated feature, and there lies much of the problem with this movie. It lacks an identity that helps it to stand on it’s own. It’s a problem that Disney has had to struggle with when adapting all of stories from their own library. What I have found from watching many of these live action adaptations is that the best among them are the ones that go out of their way to be their own thing. What made Cinderella work as well as it did was the fact that it used only a few scant things from the Disney original (like character names and a scant famous phrase here and there) and mix them in with a largely original take on the same story, hence making it stand more solidly on it’s own. Pete’s Dragon made an even more remarkable transformation, overhauling the style completely and turning a goofy, saccharine 70’s musical into a tear-jerking, emotional indie drama, and in turn, making it work even better. Also, despite some story nitpicks that I had about it, last year’s Jungle Book remake by Jon Favreau still managed to successfully carve out it’s own identity. The worst kinds of these movies are the ones that purposely mine the nostalgia elements of these beloved movies, but offer up nothing better in return. Sadly, Beauty and the Beast is one of these films. In fact, I dare say it may be the worst one of these movies to date; yep, even more pathetic than the much maligned Alice in Wonderland. I was really shocked by how badly this movie missed the mark. The adaptation is terrible, the production is a mess, the performances by the cast are mixed at best, and overall all it made me feel was a complete sense of disappointment all the way through.
It’s not a good sign when you’re watching a movie, and all you can think about are the things that could’ve been done better with it. The movie comes to us from director Bill Condon, whose career as a filmmaker has been a mixed one. For one thing, he was the Oscar-winning mind behind the critically acclaimed Gods and Monsters (1998). On the other hand, he is also the guy you can blame for bringing the universally loathed final two Twilight movies to the big screen. One thing that I noticed about Bill Condon as a director is that he’s at his best when he makes a small, reserved dramatic film, like with Gods and Monsters, Kinsey (2004), or Mr. Holmes (2015). But, give him a broader subject and a more lavish budget to work with, and he somehow completely mismanages it. That’s the case that sadly happens with Beauty and the Beast. The movie is a very shoddily directed, with some moments feeling completely disjointed. There’s a scene where Maurice is lost in the woods and confronted by wolves, and like the worst kinds of action movies, the editing is so frantic and jumbled that I couldn’t get a handling on where the action was taking place and what was happening to the character. The story itself also suffers quite a bit. Remember the nice bit of flow that the original animated film had from scene to scene. Well this movie clumsily force feeds you plot contrivances and unnecessary character business that makes the whole experience feel inconsistent. Another major issue is the padding done to the story. I understand that part of justifying the production of this movie was because it no longer needed to be bound by the limitations of the animated medium, including it’s shorter run-time, but what is added to this movie to bring it to 2 hours offers nothing of substance. There’s even a horribly contrived new magical item, apart from the rose and the enchanted mirror, introduced into this version that, quite frankly, breaks the plot entirely. Without giving it away, I seriously question it’s existence. If it has this kind of power, wouldn’t it have been useful to use later in the plot? Nope, it’s entirely forgotten by the end.
But, the most upsetting part of the movie is how poorly it deals with the iconic characters that were so beloved in the animated feature. In particular, this movie does a real disservice to the supporting cast of enchanted objects. Disney did an amazing job taking the nameless inanimate objects that inhabit the Beast’s castle from the original story, and turned them into clearly defined personalities that stood out on their own in the animated feature. In this film, the same characters are pale imitations of their animated predecessors, and I think that’s largely due to the awkward transition they made from expressive hand-drawn animation to rigid CGI animation. The new designs of the characters, quite frankly, are pretty ugly and it distracts from any kind of character development that they have. Couple this with a screenplay that cares little about setting these characters apart and you’ve got a portrayal that really does insult the memory of these beloved characters. What’s worse is that it wastes an amazing cast, made up of heavy hitters like Ian McKellan and Emma Thompson. There is such a thing as a movie being overproduced, and the needlessly garish CGI enhancements put on these characters and the rest of the movie in general is proof of that. The movie has production value to it, but it’s so aggressively thrown at you that you just don’t care by the end. I was particularly disappointed by the staging of all the iconic musical numbers, because they are so poorly blocked and overly saturated with unnecessary flourish. It’s amazing to think that the animated feature is the one that takes the subtler approach. Disney thought that perhaps by throwing away all limitations they could make this film feel even grander, but sadly all it does is spotlight the artificiality of it all even more. Animation is of course all artificial, but it’s one that remains consistent within it’s world and gives the imitation of life a much more bigger sense of reality. Belle’s triumphant mountaintop moment, for example, feels so much more powerful when it’s all animated, and not filmed against a green-screen; quite poorly I might add.
Despite all my complaining up to now, I can’t say that everything in this movie is bad. However, the good stuff that is here can be counted on one hand. I will say that like most other classic adaptations of this story, the film’s most successful execution is of the Beast. Actor Dan Stevens does do a pretty credible job taking on this difficult role and gives the character a surprising amount of charisma. It’s even more remarkable that he stands out at all, particularly when he has to act through a CGI crafted mask to make him look like beastly. I’m not a fan of the redesign, because it’s too closer to human-like than previous Beasts, and really pale in comparison to the iconic animated version which was such an amazing design. But, the delivery that Stevens gives helps to make the design shortcomings feel less important. I also thought that there were some surprisingly good performances from unexpected roles as well. Kevin Kline gives easily the film’s best performance as Maurice, and that’s only because he’s the only subtle one in the entire cast. Luke Evans and Josh Gad are also surprisingly effective as the villains, Gaston and LeFou. There is actually better chemistry between these two than there is between Belle and the Beast in this movie. It’s almost like the actors are coming from a different movie entirely, where their character histories are more clearly defined. It helps you to buy them as the characters, even when you realize that they are a little uncharacteristically cast; especially Evans, who’s not quite a big enough actor to portray the man as “large as a barge.” The controversial addition of a gay subtext to the character of LeFou is also not a big deal, and barely is important at all in the story. My only complaint is why didn’t Disney just create a gay character from scratch instead of retroactively changing an already established one to be gay, let alone a villainous one? Still, they are solid standouts in an otherwise mixed cast. Emma Watson perhaps represents the movie’s mixed results more than anything. She looks the part, yes, and does have her moments; but, you can tell that a lack of serious musical training has left her at a disadvantage and despite her trying her best, you can sense the struggle in her performance more than any other in the movie.
This movie made me think a lot of the recent Ghostbusters reboot, and how that movie also failed at carving out it’s own identity while also trying to milk the nostalgia that it was built upon. Like it, you have a movie that has all the hallmarks of a beloved classic, along with talent that can bring a lot of new things to the material, and yet, it just falls flat on it’s face. Believe me, I didn’t want to see this movie fail as badly as it does, just like I didn’t want to see a lackluster Ghostbusters. But, the sad result is that these movies just come across as shameless cash-grabs in the end. Disney has proven other times that they can make the formula work, as they have with Cinderella and Jungle Book. I think this one hurts so bad because it’s an adaptation of such a beloved classic. With the others, you could see a foundation where something fresh could be built upon and even improved in some cases. With Beauty and the Beast, it seems that the animated film just sets too high a bar to cross. Not that I don’t think it could ever be done. With better direction, staging, and a more subtler approach, I think a live action remake could’ve worked. Disney already proved that they could take the same film and bring it to the Broadway stage with all the charm and wonder intact. That’s another thing that puzzled me while watching this; the hit Broadway musical successfully expanded the story with new musical numbers, and yet none of that was used here, instead opting for newer songs written just for this movie, none of which are memorable in any way. Why couldn’t the Broadway show have served as a suitable basis for an expanded film production? Whatever the case, I’m sad to say that this film adaptation is one of the bigger disappointments in recent Disney history. The best thing I can say at this point is that it does make me appreciate the original animated feature even more. Unfortunately, this trend of mining the Disney Vault is not going to end soon, with Jon Favreau’s adaptation of The Lion King and Tim Burton’s Dumbo coming up in the years ahead. My best hope is that each of these adaptation at least makes an attempt to be it’s own thing and not a pale imitation of the movies that came before them. In the case of this one, there is sadly no handsome prince underneath the skin of this monstrous beast.