Oscar isn’t a fan of Disney’s latest live-action re-adaptation.
Last year, I concluded my review of The Jungle Book proclaiming that I eagerly awaited the next remake of a Disney animated classic. Today, I find myself in an awkward situation. The original Beauty and the Beast had no overriding flaws like lackluster music or visuals, weak characterisation, dated morals or questionable writing. It is to this day a legitimately great film, animated or otherwise, and a personal favourite of mine. Here we have a remake of an animated classic that is not a complete wash like Tim Burton’s Alice movies or Maleficent, but it’s not a triumphant display of filmmaking and sadly falls short from a storytelling standpoint.
One night in 18th century France, an enchantress disguised as a beggar woman curses a selfish, arrogant prince (Dan Stevens) for refusing her shelter from a storm. The prince is transformed into a monstrous beast, and his servants into living household objects. The castle is locked in endless winter and all memory of it is erased from the outside world, until the Beast can learn to love and be loved in return, and before the last petal of an enchanted rose falls. If the Beast cannot break the curse, he will be doomed to remain as he is for all time.
Years later in the village of Villeneuve, a young woman, Belle (Emma Watson), lives with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline), an artist and tinkerer. Gaston (Luke Evans), a celebrated former captain, seeks her hand in marriage, but she is repulsed by his arrogance and narcissism. Maurice and his horse Philippe are attacked by wolves, and seek refuge at the castle, but Maurice is imprisoned by the Beast for taking a rose from the garden. Philippe escapes to the village, and Belle ventures into the forest in search of her father, finding him in the castle dungeon. She confronts the Beast and helps her father to escape by tricking the Beast and taking her father’s place. She is freed by the Beast’s transformed servants, Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), and is given her own room in the castle, in the hopes that she could be the one to break the spell and save the castle’s occupants.
I’ll start with Ms Watson’s performance and then address the supporting cast. I’m sorry everybody, but she is sadly miscast. Watson is an accomplished and competent actress, but the changes made to the character and her own performance result in her feeling very unlike the original Belle. She doesn’t come across as sweet, caring, excitable or even genuine. A lot of her delivery is decidedly flat and dispassionate, sometimes aloof and haughty or insecure. It can’t be easy acting to animated household objects or a CGI Beast, but I got no sense that she was interacting with these characters. Because so much of the film’s story and themes are predicated on Belle’s character, her lackluster and uninvolved performance really hurts the story. I do not see Belle anywhere in her. Worse still, I never really believed in her growing relationship with the Beast; their chemistry is all but nonexistent and not once did I believe that their’s was an exceptional love worth fighting for.
The supporting cast fare better. Even when he doesn’t have the best material to work with, Stevens is suitably intimidating or soft spoken as the Beast, feeling right for the character’s dual nature. Evans was clearly having a ball as Gaston. While not as obnoxious and cruel as the original at first, you do see his sinister side gradually emerge and he owns these moments. He might not be “roughly the size of a barge”, but he’s no slouch in a fight. Josh Gad fits the role of LeFou like a glove – he’s energetic, amusing, and just the right level of sycophantic without being a cartoon about it, having a cheeky sort of chemistry with Evans. Kline’s Maurice is a much more well-rounded, a fatherly and earnest character, and his scenes between Belle are very well done. The actors playing the transformed servants are dependable; McGregor is enjoyably flamboyant and spirited as Lumiere, and has a great comedic spark with McKellen, who sells the comically serious scenes (I swear at times, though, that I could hear Gandalf in his voice readings). Thompson is a solid replacement for Angela Lansbury, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a good addition as the elegant feather duster and lover to Lumiere, and Stanley Tucci gets a few good comedic beats as a maestro-turned-harpsichord. The Enchantress gets a moderately expanded role, played by Hattie Morahan, but her line delivery is very wooden and devoid of real emotion, as shown in the mediocre narration. And, finally, Nathan Mack as the little teacup Chip is also sadly wooden.
The production design from the castle to the costumes captures the opulent design of the animated film and the time period extremely well, with one exception. The detail and intricacy of the costumes walks a fine line between fidelity to the original and doing its own thing, and it often succeeds at that, with the important exception of Belle’s yellow ball dress. The castle’s interior design is very grand and alternately sinister or magnificent, invoking the spirit of the former castle. But on the outside, the place sometimes looks like something out of a video game. The town and tavern have a pastoral appeal to them, and the dark, snow-covered forests are well-realised and help to build suspense. The atmosphere lacks a consistent quality as well; some inspiring scenes are strangely dark and moments that are meant to be ominous show a severe disconnect with the characters’ emotional struggles, such Belle arriving at the castle on a beautifully-lit winter’s day, rather than at night.
The musical score by Alan Menken, veteran composer of the Disney Renaissance, is very beautiful and excels at instilling a lot of character and spirit into the revisited songs. It’s hard not to feel a bit choked up when the score revisits those familiar musical beats, such as the haunting prologue or the uplifting finale themes. I dare say it even rises above the quality of the singing. Speaking of which, Watson’s singing is sadly another Achilles’ Heel. It clearly sounds auto-tuned and very lacking compared to her co-stars, nevermind her animated counterpart, whose voice actress Paige O’Hara had a much wider singing range thanks to her Broadway experience. Gad and Evans go all out with their singing parts and are a ton of fun to watch, with “Gaston” proving to be my favourite of the re-done songs. MacGregor gets to show off his Moulin Rouge singing chops and enthusiasm in “Be Our Guest”, and Thompson also does well in her singing parts despite the long shadow of Angela Lansbury. As expected of a Tony-winning actress, Audra MacDonald is a sheer powerhouse of a singer, so much so you almost want her to take over the whole affair, the crowd singing is also very well done. Even Kline has a bittersweet song early on. Sadly, the rest of the other new songs range from mediocre and uninteresting at best to tonally dissonant at worst.
Cinderella and The Jungle Book felt like sturdy settings with weight and presence to them, and the messy CGI consistency here makes the film feel more artificial. The CGI on the Beast’s face sometimes looks passable and other times is much less impressive. He’s redesigned to appear more human-like and less animal-shaped, but that shouldn’t have precluded the use of animatronics and makeup to bring a more human Beast to life. Here, the animated face takes away from any savage or scary scenes he could have had. Due to the redesigns of the servants, it was difficult to read Lumiere’s expressions, Cogsworth’s face looked like a mechanical emoji half the time, and the “face” of the wardrobe is actually downright disturbing! The script plays into this, with Maurice and Belle’s reactions being less bemused wonderment and more sheer terror. This creates a feeling of almost self-parody.
There is the odd choice in that Gaston seems to genuinely like Belle in this version, and doesn’t come across as predatory and unpleasant as his animated counterpart. Right off the bat, the idea of making Gaston more likable and sincere in his attraction to Belle makes her rebuttal count for less. We learn that her favourite play is Romeo & Juliet, but she never comes across as a romantic person. At no point should anyone sympathise with Gaston more than Belle, otherwise the whole thing cannot work. The Beast is an idiot as he doesn’t realise that Belle could be the key to the castle’s salvation, and isn’t the one to offer her better living quarters, instead writing her off as a nuisance. A lot of the Beast’s dialogue and actions are given to the other characters, and it lessens the connection made with him because he acts like a jerk who you don’t really want to see redeemed.
The reason why Gaston in the original is such a great villain is because he represents how bullies are rewarded and praised as long as they possess certain characteristics, while good people like Belle and Maurice who may seem eccentric or quirky are ostracised and ridiculed. Beauty and the Beast (1991) demonstrated how destructive and backwards that attitude is. Here, they show more of the town shunning Belle for reading and being different but never build up Gaston as everyone’s hero. Women swoon over him but the town treats him like a normal guy, and LeFou even has to pay the bar musicians to play “Gaston.” This undermines the sense of threat around him, and makes his descent into evil feel less natural. They try to make both Gaston and the townsfolk more sympathetic but also more narrow-minded at the same time, and it cannot work both ways.
The few new additions to the story either add nothing to the overarching themes and narrative or they actually open up giant plot holes. Everything in the original film naturally moved forward and connected, but here, the pacing and poorly-connected scenes make it feel truncated and awkward. Belle is shown inventing an 18th century equivalent of a washing machine so she can teach a little girl how to read, and then the machine gets destroyed by the judgemental villagers, and it doesn’t factor in later. We get some insights into our protagonists’ histories, but they still feel inconsequential. Another glaring addition is a magical book that allows Belle and the Beast to travel anywhere in the world, and is used only once. The book could have been written out and the film would have been less problematic for it. Finally, the worst change comes in the climax; I won’t describe it in detail, but it does rob Belle of her overarching agency in breaking the spell, making her not the one to save the Beast and his servants.
Because of the streamlined nature of animation, you can convey a lot of story through character expressions. When the Beast is considering letting Belle go to save her father, rather than give a few moments to ponder his fate and the fates of his servants and showing the pain of that decision, he just lets her go without any emotion. This only exacerbates the lack of genuine love felt between the characters. Even the visual symmetry Belle and Beast display during the famous dance scene is lost. The whole film feels less rich and human despite being transferred into three-dimensions.
The prospect of a live-action adaptation of the animated Beauty and the Beast was always going to be difficult to make perfectly, if not outright impossible. Any changes a remake would have made were always going to be compared to the original because it set the standard for future iterations of the fairytale. The remake placed all the emphasis on superficial areas like the visuals, which worked best in animation, and not enough on the thematic underpinnings of the story. Thanks to undermined themes, storytelling and a failure of a romantic pair, the whole thing falls apart on further digestion. Ultimately, the only lesson it teaches me is to be careful what you wish for, and that two-dimensional animation does not equal two-dimensional storytelling.