Review: Beauty and the Beast
Disney's animated version of Beauty and the Beast from 1991 was one of my favorite movies growing up. I still consider it to be one of Disney’s best-looking romances, with catchy songs and an endearing cast of characters. Normally, I’d roll my eyes at a live action remake, but Disney has had a great run in bringing some of their older films to life in new and interesting ways. While the 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast doesn’t quite match its live action predecessors, it’s an enchanting and charming musical all the same.
Based on the classic fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast begins with an Enchantress casting a spell on an arrogant prince (Dan Stevens), after he coldly rebukes her due to her haggard appearance. The Enchantress turns the prince into a beast and the whole castle into various household objects. In a nearby village, bookish oddball Belle (Emma Watson) tries to reject the unwelcome advances of Gaston (Luke Evans), while working with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) on inventions. Maurice gets lost in the woods and stumbles upon the prince’s castle and is taken prisoner after stealing a rose. Belle takes his place and, well, you know the rest.
While I was afraid that the 2017 Beauty and the Beast would just be a shot-for-shot remake, the film does take great care to recreate its precursor’s many iconic moments, plus there are some additions and changes to make the film play to a 21st century audience. For one thing, the Enchantress’s curse also affects the village, so that no one even remembers the prince or the castle. That’s an interesting little twist on the original story, and one that makes things just a tad bleaker. Belle and the Beast get more character development. The romance is given just a bit more room to grow (critics of the story like to trot out their very cute “Stockholm syndrome” thing, but come on). Maurice gets a refreshing rewrite, and his character is not just a bumbling fool. This film is pretty funny, adding in some one-liners, physical gags, and even meta-jokes. I wish some inspiration had been taken from Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête, instead of only Disney's past version. The Cocteau film used a lot of simple practical effects, which are always welcome these days.
My major criticism for this 2017 movie is that it can be almost aggressively whimsical at times. Unlike Pete’s Dragon, The Jungle Book, and even Cinderella in its own way, Beauty and the Beast isn’t a stripped-down version of its animated predecessor. Rather, it puts all of its money on the screen, at times to its detriment. The costume design and the art direction can be somewhat distracting, though I appreciate the more grotesque look over a cutesy one (and that’s what I was expecting). It’s certainly not as migraine-inducing as Maleficent or Alice in Wonderland. Plus, the design of the Beast is cool, because he’s imposing but lovable at the same time.
Tobias A. Schliesser’s camerawork is a little flat. He keeps the camera moving and sweeping around rooms, but he doesn’t quite do a good job of capturing the production design. The camera is almost too fast. Bill Condon hasn’t directed a movie on this scale before, with musical numbers, a big budget, special effects, and a large ensemble. He had some success in the past with those elements separately, however I felt he was overwhelmed this time around.
The performances are all rather good and entertaining. Emma Watson’s singing voice isn’t exactly up to mark, but it’s obvious she was hired for her dramatic performance. Her Belle is guarded, aloof, and stubborn—much like her Hermione was. That’s not to say that she’s playing the same character; it’s more that Belle fits her strengths as an actress (Watson would also make a good Jane Austen heroine). Dan Stevens is terrific as the Beast. He’s outwardly menacing and angry, inwardly vulnerable and charming. He sings his part really passionately, even if a CGI balladeer is hard to imagine. Luke Evans is a devilish good time as Gaston, Josh Gad gets some great laughs, and Kevin Kline is sympathetic and wonderful. The characters in the castle— Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Ian McKellan, Stanley Tucci, and Audra McDonald—all fill their roles delightfully. These must be really fun roles to play, and these amazing actors all do a great job. In an alternate universe, Gugu Mbatha Raw could play Belle with ease.
The music is also a major highlight. While fans of the 1991 soundtrack (or the Broadway recording) might not replace those albums with this new one, the new cast does a fine job recreating these songs. There are some new songs, which will most likely get a major push from Disney for Oscar consideration. They're good, but jarring given how iconic the original songs are.
Beauty and the Beast is going to be a crowd-pleasing effort from Disney. I can’t imagine that it won’t own the box office, as it’s a solid, entertaining movie. While I did have some issues, I really do admire its refusal to rest on the laurels of the 1991 movie by adding some new plot elements and character beats. I hope young kids, who may not have seen the cartoon, claim this movie as their own, because there are moments that really are magical.