Director: Bill Condon
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gadd, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald
In 1991, New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich declared that the best Broadway musical score of the year actually belonged to a movie. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was a sensation. It became the first animated feature film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, spawned a long-running Broadway show, and arguably represents the high watermark for Disney’s animated musicals. All of which means that the latest in Disney’s run of live-action remakes of their animation back catalogue probably has the highest stakes.
The opening prologue, which is here dramatised rather than simply narrated, transports us back to provincial France where an arrogant prince (Dan Stevens) is transformed into a hideous beast, and all his staff into crockery and furniture, as punishment for his cruelty, and doomed to stay that way unless he can learn to love and earn someone’s love in return. That someone is Belle (Emma Watson), a bookish but courageous girl from a nearby town who becomes prisoner in the beast’s palace before working her way into the hearts of the staff and, ultimately, their master (leading some to cynically refer to the film as ‘Stockholm Syndrome: The Musical’).
The main thing this new Beauty and the Beast has in its favour is the audience’s pre-existing affection for the original, and it knows it. As such there is a tendency for it to stick very close to its source. While there is undoubtedly a certain joy in seeing this world brought to life, and the result is the kind of lavish fantasy musical we don’t see much of anymore, the costumes, sets, choreography and music, even the performances, seem to be aimed at recreating rather than reinventing the original. This means that at its absolute best moments this live-action remake manages only to remind you of that thing you loved, while at others it frustrates you with its deviations and shortcomings.
To call it a ‘live-action’ remake is, of course, misleading when a significant number of the characters, including one half of the titular couple, are digitally animated. The staff at the beast’s palace, including Lumiere (Ewan McGregor, sporting a very unconvincing French accent), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), and Mrs Potts (Emma Thompson), are all brought to life using magnificent, lifelike CGI. However, what this digital animation gains in detail of design it loses in characterisation. The more realistic animation results in less expressive characters that are simply not as charming or enchanting as their more cartoonish versions.
Director Bill Condon has some experience with movie musicals, having directed Dreamgirls and written the screenplay for the Best Picture winning Chicago. Where the last Disney remake, The Jungle Book, shied away from its musical roots, Beauty and the Beast retains all the beloved songs from the original – including favourites ‘Be Our Guest,’ ‘Gaston,’ and of course the title track – while adding three new songs (it is common practice for new songs to be added in a musical adaptation so that there is something to put up for Best Song at the Oscars). Interestingly, this remake represents composer Alan Menken’s third go around with this project, having written the music and songs for the 1991 film with lyricist Howard Ashman, and then further orchestration and songs with Tim Rice for the stage adaptation. Of the new songs, the sweet ‘How Does a Moment Last Forever,’ which is sung alternately by Maurice (Belle’s father, played with great heart by Kevin Kline) and Belle, and then by Celine Dion over the end credits, is the highlight.
With recent movie musicals putting a high value on live singing (as opposed to lip-synching to an earlier studio recording) it is surprising that Condon has not gone down that path, at least for the non-animated characers. From the moment Watson opens her mouth to sing her opening lines, the studio refined, dare I say auto-tuned, quality of the voice makes it feel somewhat disconnected from the mouth it is supposedly coming from, and takes something away from the magic of the music. That aside, Watson proves a good fit for the central role, adding just a hint of feminist strength to Belle’s innate goodness. It is Luke Evans’ Gaston, however, that is the cast standout, preening, strutting and scheming his way through the picture (even if being live action draws uncomfortable attention to just how much older he is than her).
Where Condon’s film does expand on the original and bring something new is in its treatment of a couple of the tale’s secondary relationships. Gaston’s devoted sidekick LeFou (Josh Gadd) is given greater depth. Where he was previously a two dimensional bumbling fool, he now has a nice, and some have suggested groundbreaking, little arc where he struggles with his unrequited romantic feelings for his pal. The more prominent expansion, however – which along with the new songs is responsible for the 45 minute bump in the run time – is the relationship between Belle and her father, Maurice. The ‘craziness’ of the old inventor is significantly dialled down, and instead Maurice is presented as a protective and compassionate single father. Their story, in which it is ultimately revealed to Belle what happened to her mother and why they left Paris for the provincial life, is a very touching one.
This movie will make a lot of money – the fool proof combination of a much loved product and Emma Watson ensured that would be the case – but unfortunately that seems to be its only real goal. Beauty and the Beast is a pale imitation of the 1991 classic which doesn’t sufficiently build on or add to the original, and as such doesn’t manage to step out of its imposing shadow. Despite lavish production values and all-star cast, it lacks something of a spark and ends up just being a little bland.
Review by Duncan McLean
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