A film review by Craig J. Koban March 31, 2017

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST jj

2017, PG, 129 mins.

 

Emma Watson as Belle  /  Dan Stevens as Beast / Prince Adam  /  Luke Evans as Gaston  /  Ewan McGregor as Lumiere  /  Ian McKellen as Cogsworth  /  Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts  /  Josh Gad as LeFou  /  Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette  /  Stanley Tucci as Cadenza  /  Kevin Kline as Maurice  /  Hattie Morahan as Agathe  /  Audra McDonald as Wardrobe

Directed by Bill Condon  /  Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos

SCREENED IN
3D

When I was growing up I always considered Disney as a highly rare breed of movie studio that celebrated and sold its very own unique brand of cinemagic.  

Lately, though, they've been certainly guilty of abandoning pioneering creativity and have instead opted to lazily mine their very own catalogue of classic and iconic animated films in order to turn them into live action updates.  Anyone that thinks this practice is artistically questionable needs to give their head a shake.  Whether it be in the form of appropriating past works like THE JUNGLE BOOK, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and CINDERELLA, Disney's main motive here is ostensibly financial: these live action remakes are unstoppable box office cash cows.  That's why they exist. 

The thorny catch-22 that I've experienced while watching those aforementioned films is that, for the most part, I've liked most of them, even though I find their existence - outside of providing for a predictably high revenue stream for Disney - to be dubious at best.  A high budget and glossy live action adaptation of the company's own cherished 1991 animated film BEAUTY AND THE BEAST sure seemed like a foregone conclusion.  That film not only was a box office juggernaut in its era (it was the first animated film to nab over $100 million at the box office), but it also became the very fist animated film in history to be nominated for Best Picture alongside other live action works (which essentially and unavoidably led to the creation of a special Best Animated Film Oscar category).  Considering that the nineties BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is one of Disney's greatest achievements, it's ultimately disappointing how dramatically flat and uninspired this remake is...and one that never develops its own spirited personality apart from the film that spawned it. 

 

 

That, and aside from some modest additions and augmentations here and there, this new retooled BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a slavishly faithful and achingly safe remake that's a bit too timid minded to reinvigorate the established material for a new generation.  If anything, the film is a well packaged and engineered (for the most part) piece of audience placating nostalgia...and not much else.  Anyone familiar with the 1991 animated film will have no issues following the plot here:  In a small French village resides a young woman (with a perplexingly non-region specific English accent...more on that later) named Belle (Emma Watson) who resided there with her widowed father Maurice (Kevin Kline).  Her girl next door good looks and spunky charm makes her the easy target of Gaston (Luke Evans), an aggressive narcissist that's not only infatuated with courting Belle, but is also deeply in love with...well...himself.   

One evening when Belle gets lost in the woods looking for her own lost father she stumbles across an old and ominously spooky castle and discovers, to her horror, that Maurice has been held captive there by a bipedal werewolf-like creature (Dan Stevens, buried under CG effects).  Belle pleads with the Beast to let her father go in exchange for her taking his place, which the creature begrudgingly agrees to.  As Belle begins her stay in locked confinement she's befriended by the Beast's staff, Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and her son Chip (Nathan Mack), all of whom come in the form of typically inanimate household objects come to life.  These servants have a noble minded ulterior motive with Belle, seeing as they hope to hook her up with the Beast in order to lift a curse that has left them and their employer in their current physical states. 

Song, dance numbers, and interspecies romance ensues.

On a positive, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a mostly lush and vibrantly realized film from a pure visual level and contains opulent costume and production design galore (even though there are far too many scenes in Belle's French village that look pathetically like studio movie sets and not the product of natural location shooting).  As an ornate piece of eye candy, the film is sumptuous to behold, and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST displays ample merriment in recreating some of the 1991 entry's most cherished musical numbers, such as the grandly spectacular "Be Our Guest" that showcases McGregor's Lumiere as a lively ringmaster of a prepared dinner service for Belle and her captor.  I also liked a few of the new songs created just for this new film, like "Evermore" that showcases a more vulnerable side to Stevens' Beast. 

One of the large issues that plagues this new BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is...the Beast himself.  Originally planned to utilize Stevens in makeup (the wisest choice possible), the computer generated Beast here is a crushingly disappointing piece of sub par CGI fakery, especially coming off of the heels of the brilliant and bravura CG animals that populated THE JUNGLE BOOK remake last year.  With unconvincing artificial fur and even more stilted and odd facial animation, it became increasingly hard for me to buy in and root for Belle and the Beast as a promising couple, primarily because the Beast rarely looks like an authentic element opposite of Watson.  BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is proof positive how old school visual effects trickery and meticulous makeup design (which would have allowed the actor behind the Beast to shine through) would have been the finer choice instead of a middling computer simulation of a monster. 

The human cast in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST fares no better and is a mixed bag overall.  Emma Watson is a fetchingly lovely screen presence, to be sure, but she lacks emotional range as both an actress and a singer to make Belle feel fully alive and realized.  She most definitely looks the part of her animated antecedent, but she never manages to hold her own and upstage the other actors and beautiful scenery that surrounds her.  Evans is a reasonable hoot as Gaston that relishes in portraying one of Disney's most criminally vain characters, but he's awkwardly flanked by the distractingly cast Josh Gad as LeFou, Gaston's incredibly loyal and very much gay companion.  Now, there's nothing wrong with a Disney movie having a flamboyantly gay side character, but Gad engages in a bit too much distracting camera mugging for his own good here. 

Speaking of distracting, why is BEAUTY AND THE BEAST such an Anglophone-washed production?  Seriously?  The film is set in France, has a French heroine that lives in a French village and is surrounding by a multitude of French denizens...but there's not a single prominent French actor of any kind playing any of these roles.  A majority of the juicy parts are occupied by English, Scottish, and American actors that are either speaking in their native accent or some sort of bizarre hybrid accent (Kline in particular plays Maurice like an American thespian playing a British thespian that's sometimes trying to sound French).  Granted, some actors like McGregor are attempting French dialects, but his is so mannered in the film that it becomes kind of garish.  Disney's reticent to have region specific actors populate this film should have raised more eye brows than it has. 

Equally uninspired is Bill Condon's (CHICAGO, DREAMGIRLS, and THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN Parts 1 and 2) flat and listless direction, which does the film no favors either.  Rather dutifully and mechanically, Condon does his best to replicate the original's music numbers, but his approach is so sterile and workmanlike that BEAUTY AND BEAST feels more like an act of phoned-in replication than a wholly original piece with its own stylistic hubris.  Maybe that's my overall issue with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST in general: it rarely feels alive, nor does it have the courage to say potentially compelling things about its frankly antiquated themes.  Belle segues from a fairly independent minded lass and into a Stockholm Syndromed damsel that falls for her captor and is ultimately made complete when he - SPOILER ALERT! - gets transformed back into a hunky prince that's easy on the eyes.   

Maybe all of these Disney live action remakes are really starting to frustrate me.  They're already planning on adapting a multitude of past animated films going forward, which is more than a bit unsettling.  When I was younger I dined on freshly made new cuisines from the studio.  Now, I feel that the younger generation is just getting stale and reheated leftovers from the past.  BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is indicative of this worrisome trend that won't be dying anytime soon. 

 

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