Did you like the animated and Oscar nominated 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast? Have you seen the popular stage musical that spawned from the blockbuster Disney film? Do you want to see both of those things rolled into one on the big screen with an entirely different cast via a live action retelling of the “tale as old as time and song as old as rhyme” with storytelling deviations so miniscule that you’d need a microscope to see them? Then, brothers and sisters, do I have a film for you.
Joking aside, filmmaker Bill Condon’s visually resplendent, competent, and wholly unnecessary Beauty and the Beast remake isn’t a bad film. It’s just something the majority of viewers who will go to see it have seen before. On one hand, it’s a bit of a cash grab, but the material is largely intact and delivered to willing and open audiences solely with the goal of entertaining viewers for just a bit over two hours. It’s made for people who like Beauty and the Beast so much that they’ll willingly sit through the exact same story without qualms.
I quite like Beauty and the Beast, so I’m willing to grant Condon’s recontextualizing of the material a great deal of slack. Your mileage may vary. I’m sure some people will be up in arms about this and claiming that Disney is simply trying to milk every dime that they can from one of their hottest properties, but we also live in a culture where people are plunking down money at movie theatres to watch filmed adaptations of stage plays quite regularly. I understand and acknowledge that Beauty and the Beast 2K17 is redundant, and yet given our current cultural climate and how well the film has been constructed, I’m willing to allow it.
Emma Watson steps into the role of Belle, the bookish, independent everywoman who doesn’t want a man who won’t respect her, fending off the pushy, boorish advances of the swarthy, egotistical Gaston (Luke Evans, in a role he seems born to play) and doting over her loving single father (Kevin Kline, the film’s surprising MVP). After getting lost, her dad gets captured by a formerly self-centred and selfish prince who has been turned into a hideous beast (Dan Stevens, well disguised even in his human form). She takes her father’s place as The Beast’s captive and starts palling around with his anthropomorphized knick-knack buddies who welcome her with open arms to be their guest. She learns that The Beast is under a curse until he learns how to love. You get the idea. You know this story.
Although Beauty and the Beast runs longer than the 1991 animated film by about forty minutes – folding in bits that were added to the stage musical and a handful of original scenes to pad things out – the additions to Condon’s live action retelling are negligible and add nothing new. Initially one suspects that screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (Hercules) have added subtext about inequality and inclusivity, with Condon going as far as he can to make sure the cast isn’t whitewashed to add racial undertones to one of the whitest stories ever constructed, but it’s dropped almost twenty minutes in so the film can get back on track mimicking what it sets out to ape. After that promising set up, things settle into such a familiar groove that Chbosky and Spiliotopulos could have just as easily photocopied the sides from the stage musical and sent them out to everyone. Outside of plunking in a couple new songs seemingly designed to boost album sales and maybe net someone an Oscar next year, there’s nothing here to surprise.
I like to think that Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls) knows that his Beauty and the Beast lacks novelty, and while he isn’t taking any risks with the material like Kenneth Branagh did with Cinderella in 2015 (which remains the high water mark for live action Disney reboots) Condon embraces the material’s “let’s put on a show” moxie with open arms. In some ways, this can be seen as Beauty and the Beast for a new generation, but mostly it works as a fun, unpretentious exercise in modern blockbuster filmmaking.
The technical specs are gorgeous, and every set looks like the production design team spent years poring over every cell of the animated film and tried to come up with ways of designing it all for real world practicality. The visual effects are on point, even if some of the more notable talking household items feel unconvincing outside of an animated realm (especially Chip and Mrs. Potts). The choreography is top notch. The musical score ebbs and flows when needed. Underrated cinematographer Tobias Schliesser’s camerawork is nothing short of masterful and is best viewed on the largest screen possible. Condon knows that he can’t mask the origins of his dogearred story, so he just lets everyone involved swing for the fences and does his best to make sure all of the hard work has been captured. It might not be high minded filmmaking, but it’s certainly an admirable approach when making something as easy to sell as this.
As for the cast, it’s a big screen musical made with big screen stars instead of performers with a great deal of theatrical experience (save for LeFou actor Josh Gad, who could do this stuff in his sleep), which means the results are all over the place. Surprisingly, the weakest link here is Watson, who does a fine job conveying Belle’s strength and swagger, but offers little in the way of vulnerability or the most perfunctory of singing talents. It’s a great looking and swift moving film with an adequate choice of leading lady. Similarly disappointing is Ewan McGregor’s singing candelabra Luimiere, whose rendition of “Be Our Guest” finds the actor – who we know can sing as evidenced in past films – saddled with an uncomfortable, unconvincing French accent that makes one of the film’s biggest set pieces land unimpressively. Thankfully, the slack is picked up by Emma Thompson’s Mrs. Potts (belting out the title track like she wrote the thing and has performed it her entire life), Kline, Evans, Gad, and the fully capable Stevens, whose expression of The Beast’s lament through song might be the high point of the film. And although they don’t do much in the way of singing, Ian McKellan’s Cogsworth, Stanley Tucci’s Maestro Cadenza, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Plumette add a great deal of personality and some welcome, memorable comic beats.
Ultimately, Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is exactly what it says on the tin. For better and for worse, it’s a bullet point adaptation borne from Disney’s successful, loose adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s decidedly darker and more adult fable. Despite the live action realm and reports to suggest that this is a bit more boundary pushing than its immediate source material, Beauty and the Beast is still largely sugar coated kiddie stuff. At least it’s pleasing and retains all of the good will the original has, and in this case, that’s enough to work.