Is it really such a curse when you can live in a mighty castle, travel all over the world, see through a magic mirror, take on wolves in hand-to-hand combat and have feisty talking objects serve you exquisite meals and dress you in fabulous outfits?
Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast
By Steven Slater
March 22, 2017
I think it is better to not be overly familiar with the 1991 animated version of Beauty and the Beast when you see the new Disney live-action version. I was a wee little lad when the animated version came out, and although I have fond memories of it (and I certainly have some of the songs in my pop culture lexicon), I have not seen it in its entirety since it was in theaters. This is a benefit, since the new version is almost a shot for shot remake, and you might inevitably be comparing the new version to the one already held dearly in your heart. The good news is that it succeeds far better than Gus Van Sant’s try at such a technique (score one for Bill Condon, I suppose?) But then again, if you love the animated version, you have probably already seen this one three times.
There’s a beauty, and her name is a bit on the nose, at least for a French woman. She’s a bookworm type, a bit of an outsider, which you would imagine would fit Emma Watson fairly well considering her most famous role. Then there is a beast, whose name is...well, Beast. He is some random prince who treats an old witch poorly when she is looking for shelter (couldn’t she have conjured up a tent?), and so she curses him in the peculiar way of transforming him into a large Tasmanian devil, his servants as objects rather closely associated with their names, and gives him a rose that seems to know just when to wither and die. If the Beast can love and be loved by another before the last rose petal falls, the curse will be lifted. It’s as though the plot elements knew the whole story before it even happens! I know, it’s a fairy tale, with a broader idea at hand. But you weren’t going to see this movie because you were a fan of the original tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, were you?
The Beast’s castle is a prison that is hidden from most people’s view and removed from their memories by the curse. Fortuitously, Belle’s father happens upon it during his merchant travels, only to be imprisoned for attempting to steal a non-magical rose. His escaped horse leads Belle back to the dark stone castle, where she trades her freedom for his. The Beast has no use for her, but his servants devise a plot to play matchmaker, hoping to reverse the spell put upon the castle and return them all to human form. Of course, Belle’s hopeless suitor from town, the insufferable narcissist Gaston, throws a wrench in that plan, leading to a confrontation just as la Belle et la Bête are getting to know one another. Will true love save the day?
The reason I think it is better to be unfamiliar or at least removed from the 1991 version is because I kept hearing and reading about people having adverse reactions to slight changes here and there. I admit, it takes a moment to get used to Angela Lansbury being replaced by Emma Thompson as the voice of Mrs. Potts, but for the most part the new version sweeps you up and along. I actually felt the film was more akin to a theatrical musical production, as the musical numbers and dance sequences were all excellent, but some of the more filmic parts fell flat. The set design and costumes are wonderful, and the computer generated characters are all extremely well done. Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellan are great choices for the premier servants, the candelabra Lumiére and the small clock Cogsworth. The editing can be jarring in the more action-oriented sequences, however, as though they had to cut down the run time and removed some of the smooth shot transitions. Luckily, these moments are rare.
The weakest points, honestly, might be the main actors. Dan Stevens I can forgive slightly in his role as the Beast since he is mostly a creation of animators, although his facial features and voice acting come through well enough. But Emma Watson does not seem the perfect fit for the role of Belle. She does sing admirably well, but her performance seems to consist of a knowing bemused look most of the time, with no breathless anticipation of all the things happening around her. Perhaps she is too smart to play a fairy tale love interest, where you often need someone with a bit too much innocence for their own good.
The supporting cast, however, are all top notch. Luke Evans is a wonderful Gaston, although his demise is a bit abrupt, as he chews his way through songs and scenery. Josh Gad is his winking sidekick offering comedic relief. Kevin Kline does well with the little bits he is offered as Belle’s father. Surprisingly, I think Stanley Tucci was one of the more forgettable parts, perhaps since his character is just a walking harpsichord who appears in a handful of scenes. And McGregor and McKellan, as mentioned above, are perfect.
In the grand vision of Disney remastering their old catalog, this new Beauty and the Beast is definitely a win. This vision started on shaky ground, where although Alice in Wonderland earned a billion dollars, it was dreadful and dull. Maleficent was better, but still did not seem to recapture the magic. However, lately they have been on a roll, with three excellent productions in a row; Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and now Beauty and the Beast. I would probably rank this third of those three, but far above the first two efforts for bringing Disney magic to a new generation of children and families. I could easily see someone ranking this effort first, though, as it certainly has enough lively charm and true beauty. As for a more eternal question; do any of these efforts outdo their predecessors? No, but it keeps the tales alive and does so well. And if Disney balances out these efforts with magnificent new stories like Zootopia and Moana, I say keep it going. Next up on the live-action docket: Mulan.
Slater Grade: B+