Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast
By Matthew Huntley
March 27, 2017

Dance like no one's watching. (But they really, really are.)

Bill Condon's Beauty and the Beast plays like the version you might see performed on a float during Disney's Christmas Day Parade. In other words, it's awkward, overwrought and gaudy, and its presentation is not conducive to the material. It seems the filmmakers wanted to combine the 1991 animated classic and the 1993 Broadway musical into one cinematic experience, but in their attempt to do so, the finished film loses each of the preceding versions' best qualities, with the result being a clunky, ungainly and ultimately unnecessary mess. I'm with Angela Lansbury, the original voice of Mrs. Potts, who asked, “Why? Why are they doing this over again?”

Of course, we all know why. Disney's recent string of live-action adaptations of their animated classics (including Maleficent, Cinderella and The Jungle Book) have proven enormously successful, and not just financially, but also critically (The Jungle Book was especially well crafted and delightful). And I'm not suggesting a similar treatment couldn't have been applied to Beauty and the Beast with some degree of achievement, but because the animated film and Broadway musical are as good as they are, there hardly seemed room for improvement. This live-action hybrid merely underlines the adage, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”

But perhaps “fix” isn't the right word. To be fair, Condon and his team don't seem inclined to improve upon the other versions so much as tell the fairytale in a different way. The problem is they don't, and I never got a sense they were bring anything new to the table, other than a larger budget. This is, really, just the animated and musical versions combined, filmed with real-life actors against mostly green screens. So then what's the point? There's little in the way of twists or spins, either narrative or character-wise, although it was refreshing (and encouraging) to see the studio was unafraid to cast people of color in expectedly white roles and to suggest some of the characters might be gay. But aside from these little touches, it seems the studio only green-lighted Beauty and the Beast to cash in on the original's popularity. At just over a quarter of a century old, the generation that grew up with the beloved animated film will most surely want to see this new one and take their own kids. How could any new incarnation of Beauty and the Beast not thrive at the box-office?

It's just a shame it doesn't thrive artistically or entertainingly. Unlike The Jungle Book, with its beauteous, pulsating imagery and energy, Beauty and the Beast comes across as murky and flat. Despite nearly every shot being enhanced by special effects, I never believed any of its environments were real, even in the context of the film's own reality. Everything appears artificial and as part of a set. Even the sun doesn't seem bright or natural enough.

More problematic than its lackluster look, though, is the story, which doesn't feel self-contained and confident, like it could exist without viewers having prior knowledge of the other versions. In fact, the filmmakers assume the audience already knows the story and therefore rush through many developments. I sensed this as early as the opening narration, which doesn't start off slowly, mysteriously and dream-like (the animated film did this by fading in on the Beast's castle from afar and tracking in through layers of trees), but rather jumps right in, as if it's in a hurry. We're not allowed time to process this world.

The narration of course tells us about a cruel, selfish prince (Dan Stevens) turned into a hideous beast by a beggar woman, who later revealed herself to be a beautiful enchantress after she learned the prince had no love in his heart. She placed a curse on him and all who lived in his castle, and unless he can learn to love another and earn her love in return by the time the last petal of a magic rose falls, he'll remain a beast forever.

Enter the “Beauty” of this story, a kind, thoughtful farm girl named Belle (Emma Watson), whom the other villagers in her provincial French town view as odd because she's intelligent and well-read. Like most heroine's in stories of this nature, she wants more than her current life has to offer. She craves knowledge and adventure, and it’s her rebelliousness that attracts the brutish and conceited Gaston (Luke Evans), who's adored by every other woman in town, not to mention his sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad).

As the story goes, when Belle's inventor-father (Kevin Kline) makes a detour on his way to the market and accidentally ends up trespassing in the Beast's castle, the Beast takes him prisoner. Belle willingly takes his place, and erelong, as she and Beast spend more time together, a love “that wasn't there before” begins to blossom.

And it just wouldn't be Beauty and the Beast without the colorful supporting characters, including Lumiere the candelabra (Ewan McGregor); Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen); Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) the teapot and her teacup-saucer son, Chip (Nathan Mack); and the wardrobe Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald). They lend their voices to some of the movie's time-honored music and dance numbers, which ranges from the opening prologue, “Belle,” to the instantly recognizable “Be Our Guest,” “Gaston” and, of course, “Beauty and the Beast.”

Despite the A-list talent behind it though, the music doesn't possess the same zest and spontaneity as the animated version (but then, how could it?). Even after seeing the original so many times, its music always feels fresh and alive; it's an aspect of the feature many viewers, myself included, look forward to with giddy anticipation. Here, the music is strangely awkward and sounds more like an imitation of something better. Plus, it's more obvious than usual the lyrics exist on a different audio channel and aren't production-based, which make the characters and their words feel detached from one another.

And though the actors may look the parts, their embodiment of the characters never goes beyond the superficial. They appear just as artificial as their surroundings and we're always aware they're wearing costumes instead of clothes, if you know what I mean. We watch them go through the motions of emulating their animated counterparts but never listen or invest in them emotionally, and so the romantic aspect of the tale, the love if you will, escapes us.

Perhaps, then, Beauty and the Beast, whether it's the animated feature or Broadway musical, is an example of a story whose original media just shouldn't be altered or combined with another form. The filmmakers tried but failed. At the end of it, my reaction was not one of pleasure or enthusiasm, but a question: what did this remake accomplish? It's a large, lavish production with lots happening on-screen, and yet, despite this, it left me feeling empty and disappointed. Before Disney commits to another live-action reimagining, which I'm sure is already in the works, the studio needs to genuinely ask whether it's necessary and if it will entertain viewers on its own terms or just leave them yearning for the original. In the case of Beauty and the Beast, it's the latter