(2017- Director: Bill Condon)
★★★1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Reviewing films like this remake of Disney’s 1991 animated classic tends to frustrate me as a film critic who desires for films to stand as apart as possible while also cementing a unique footprint within all of cinema. That’s a tough outlook, especially since the success of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and later releases Maleficent, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book has led Disney’s live-action side to settle into a financial comfort zone of remaking classic films while setting artistic risk aside. I find it almost impossible to appraise these remakes without comparing them to their earlier (and demonstrably superior) animated iterations. Such is the case with director Bill Condon’s live-action Beauty & the Beast, whose original 1991 animated film became the first ever animated nominee for the Academy Award for Best Picture—already an insurmountable bar for this live-action remake.
As with the 1991 animated version, the opening voice-over recounts a spoiled and selfish French prince (Dan Stevens) and the servants of his decadent castle who fall victim to the curse of an enchantress seeking shelter with only a rose as her payment. She turns the prince into a hideous beast, his servants into various household objects, and sets the fall of her rose’s last petal as the deadline for the Beast to love and be loved in return or otherwise be cursed forever.
Years later, an inventor from the nearby village of Villeneuve named Maurice (Kevin Kline) gets lost and chased by wolves in the surrounding forest, before finding shelter in the castle. He then enrages the Beast when trying to pluck a rose from the garden for his headstrong and bookish daughter, Belle (Emma Watson). Belle desires a life beyond the boundaries of Villeneuve and away from the shallow affections of Gaston (Luke Evans), the village’s narcissistic hunter. Belle manages to find her father and offers to replace him as the Beast’s prisoner. The Beast warns her that she will live with him in the castle forever, which she accepts.
Belle initially views the cursed prince as nothing more than the beast that he is, while the Beast finds her too stubborn to respect. Yet, with the help of his servants—the charismatic Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), the strict Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), and the considerate Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) among them—she starts to warm to the Beast’s cold-hearted exterior. Still, it’s only a matter of time until either the drop of the last petal or for the persistent Gaston to threaten to have Maurice committed to the asylum if Belle refuses to marry him.
To start, this live-action remake clocks in at 129 minutes—about a half-hour longer than the animated film. Many over the years have noted the plot holes of the Disney adaptation such as the enchantress cursing the prince as a ten-year-old, the villagers’ poor memory on the fate of the nearby castle, and the time Belle actually spends in the castle growing close to the Beast versus the struggle between her father and Gaston with the rest of the villagers. The animated film’s shorter runtime and effortless pacing lacks the room for audiences to fully ponder over such story flaws during the viewing, but with the extra half-hour, the remake gives me that space to wonder about those plot holes.
Concerns about the narrative mistakes aren’t remedied by most of the film and its retread of 1991, which tends to coast from song to song at the cost of the drama in between the music. From the lively “Belle”, the glorious “Gaston”, the uproarious “Be Our Guest”, and the moving and magical title song, the existing (and heavily nostalgic) Alan Menken-composed and Howard Ashman-penned soundtrack remains fun to sing. Yet the songs still don’t match the punch of 1991, especially with newly added instrumental breaks that pause the song (and the film) for the visual effects crew to momentarily grab the spotlight.
Of the actors, Luke Evans visibly commits to his portrayal of Gaston, despite lacking 1991’s obvious brawn and the deep singing voice. Emma Watson as Belle takes some time to fully grow into her character (about the time when she makes a small squeal at the sight of the Beast’s library), and even then she doesn’t make the caring and brave character all her own, especially with her merely solid pipes. Dan Stevens’ performance of the original song “Evermore” (lyrics by Tim Rice) serves as the rightful peak of his adequate screen time as the Beast. The household objects always feel physically present, even though Ewan McGregor (Lumiere) is no Jerry Orbach and Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) is no Angela Lansbury.
And then there’s Josh Gad as LeFou.
I largely ignored, as with most news about the revelations of a character before a film’s release, the Bill Condon’s interviews that revealed that Josh Gad’s LeFou will display same-sex attraction in the film. Upon seeing the film, I knew the performance certainly didn’t meet the bar set by the controversy while providing some material for discussion. Jesse Corti’s 1991 voice performance as LeFou perfectly captured the sidekick’s loyal but pushover personality; however, Josh Gad as LeFou spends much of his screen time flashing piercing and longing looks at his friend of many years. Among several specific moments, LeFou remarks, “It ain’t gonna happen,” to the various Gaston-fixated village women, and when Gaston wonders why his friend hasn’t met a woman yet, LeFou replies that others find his “clingy” attitude as an obstacle. Gaston never reciprocates such affections, which does limit what LeFou can express in the film, but any knowledge of director Bill Condon’s interviews will frame LeFou’s screen time in a needlessly sexualized context and will overshadow this film for some time.
Past Disney remakes saw me leaving the theater with, at most, a feeling of vague satisfaction towards a lavish, but cinematically bland exercise—similar to repackaging over-performed greatest hits as new singles—but this controversy cements my overall underwhelming impression of this remake. I rank the 1991 film among the top five of the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon, so translating it to live action does little to stain my enjoyment of the material and my resulting star rating. Yet as I consider Beauty & the Beast’s week-old cultural presence and study Disney’s upcoming queue of live-action remakes, there exists in me a longing for the studio to instead use its resources for something bolder, riskier, newer—”something there that wasn’t there before.”