The new Disney live-action rendition of Beauty and the Beast is a movie that just about justifies its own reason for retelling on the big screen. Initially, the recreations of the familiar pieces from the animated 1991 film are so slavish that they simply create déjà vu and unfavorable comparisons to the original. However, with a few improvements along the way, this latest version ultimately finds and lets the charm and durability of the story shine through.
I will say straight up that the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast has been my personal favorite Disney animated film. Compared to many of the other Disney animated films like Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin that seem to have two people falling for each other practically overnight, Beauty and the Beast takes its time to actually have two people, Belle and the Beast getting to know one another to find and embrace the inner beauty in each other. It also has the courage to twist the Disney trope of the dashing, pompous prince character, Gaston into the motivation of an outright villain. Above all, it has the highest sheer quantity of memorable songs in any single Disney film, I think, rendered beautifully by composer Alan Menken.
When this 2017 version re-renders the first of these songs, “Belle”, the words, workmanlike and dutiful kept running through my mind to describe the direction and choreography. The scene checks off the familiar visual and musical notes of the scene where Belle (Emma Watson) is into reading at a time when not many women are well-educated and others see her as peculiar. It does it so slavishly that it plays honestly more like a live-action street parade of Disney characters rather than an organic scene.
To be fair, there are a few story points here and there that are more fleshed out. The back story of the curse that turns the narcissistic prince into the Beast (Dan Stevens) is one (including a proper personification of the enchantress played by Hattie Morahan) and another is how Belle’s father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) in this one not only breaks into the Beast’s palace but trying to steal a rose for his daughter. I also liked one addition where Belle tries to show a young girl in the village to read while doing her laundry. Crucially, Belle’s choice to be held captive in the palace instead of her father is her own unilateral decision this time.
Despite these small improvements, dutiful is the word that I kept thinking through much of the film’s first half that sets up the familiar characters including Gaston (Luke Evans) and the prince’s servants that have been turned into antiques. Part of the problem is in how director Bill Condon and his editor, Virginia Katz cut many of the scenes too quickly to let them breathe. The Beast’s first shadowy appearance to Maurice atop a roof is drained of all menace by an unnecessary edit. Many scenes do not seem to have any passion behind them such as not having Belle show any real sense of fear or wonder as she is held captive. When the film played its chaotic rendition of “Be Our Guest”, I was almost ready to check out.
Thankfully, when it gets to the scene when Belle gets away into the forest and is attacked by wolves in the forest, but eventually saved by the Beast, Condon and the filmmakers seem to find their footing. It is a turning point in the interaction between the two leads, and when the film arrives at this point when they start respecting each other to eventually fall for each other, it turns around as well. The scenes between Belle and the Beast are allowed to play out longer and the musical scene in which Belle finds out about the Beast’s past is beautifully rendered. There is also a good, understated musical number added for the Beast when he lets Belle go to tend to her father in need.
One good thing about Disney’s recent iteration of turning their animated films into live-action versions is seeing accomplished and veteran actors take on the classic animated roles, aided by impressive motion capture work. This is true here with the prince’s servant characters that are antiques. Emma Thompson is a great trade for Angela Lansbury in playing the teapot, Mrs. Potts and singing the titular song, “Beauty and the Beast” during the ballroom dancing scene. Ian McKellen, a regular for Condon’s films, and Ewan McGregor, donning a French accent, create a nice banter as Cogsworth and Lumiere, respectively. It is also welcome to see Kevin Kline lend his gravity to Maurice and Josh Gad finds relish in playing the expanded part of LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick.
As the leads, Emma Watson and Dan Stevens acquit themselves well. That Watson is not as expressive as she could be in the first half and Stevens is not as menacing as he could be is not necessarily their fault (and anyone who has seen Stevens in the 2014 thriller, The Guest will know he can play truly menacing). Once the direction and editing get out of their way after the first half, their genial and romantic chemistry comes through as they talk about books and their backgrounds and dance during the ballroom scene.
So does this movie fully convince me that Disney should keep going through their animated vault to turn their films into live-action versions? Quite frankly, no, as I personally felt that even 2016’s The Jungle Book did not work and was way overrated and 2015’s Cinderella was just passable. However, I am glad that the filmmakers were able to re-capture some of the magic of the original story anyway and, for the majority of it, show enough care to the story to respect it.
USA. 2017. Directed by Bill Condon. Screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos. Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Hattie Morahan, Hayden Gwynne, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Mack, Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson. Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images.