Movie Review – Beauty and the Beast

Directed by Bill Condon

Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, and Luke Evans

With its ownership of the Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel film companies, as well as its own animation and live action studios, The Disney Company has grown from a modest little “mouse” of a studio to an industry dominating, cash generating behemoth, churning out blockbuster after blockbuster, breaking endless box office records and “dwarfing” the competition in the process.

While Pixar and Disney Animation have maintained an impressive record of quality control, Disney’s live action department has had a much spottier reputation, concentrating on big budget spectacles that are often visually impressive, but hollow movie-going experiences. Case in point, the high action, high stupidity Pirates of the Caribbean series, a multi-billion-dollar-earning franchise adored by audiences worldwide who apparently expect little from the movie going experience as long as it provides the whiz, bang, pow of eye-popping special effects and sense-numbing action scenes with the required dose of explosions thrown in for good measure.

The company’s latest cynical attempts at easy cash grabs requiring minimal investment in ideas and screenwriting  have been a series of unnecessary remakes of their animated classics on both stage and film, all of them large, effects-laden productions, notably the critically derided Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, and Cinderella as well as theatrical versions of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. But the live-action makeovers haven’t all been bad. Broadway’s The Lion King, helmed by the visionary Julie Taymor, was by all accounts a clear improvement over the inexplicably beloved film version. And last year’s stunning film remake of The Jungle Book was well received, both critically and financially.

So there was some hope that Beauty and the Beast, the studio’s new live-action remake of the 1991 animated musical fantasy, based on the beloved French fairy tale, might be something more than a soulless and cynical attempt at generating huge receipts, something capturing the magical escapism of Disney’s best endeavors. That hope, it turns out was also a fairy tale. Like the opulent, bewigged, powder-faced French courtesans at the beginning of the film, Beauty and the Beast is overdressed, overstuffed and charmless at nearly every turn. Like so much of Hollywood’s output these days, it’s built around the misguided notion that more is more. With a budget of 160 million, you can see the money in virtually every frame. Everything about this film is big, big, big – big sets, big costumes, big production numbers, big visual effects, and big running time. But all that bigness is, like the Beast’s castle, empty and hollow.

Make no mistake, that castle is indeed an impressive bit of production design. With its winding staircases, tunnel-like passages and impossibly large library, it’s truly a sight to behold. But the dramatic potential of the set is never effectively utilized. While it could have been used to  emphasize the beast’s isolation and loneliness, it seems primarily created to impress by way of costliness.

The other sets are less impressive. The village set, through which Belle sings her opening number, never transcends its meticulously designed artificiality. It feels plastic rather than phantasmic. Many great film fantasies, from The Wizard of Oz to 1980’s Flash Gordon, have fake-looking sets, but through the intangible artistry of the production designer, the phony becomes the magical. (Think of Oz’s Munchkinland.) Here they’re merely phony. And the external shots of the castle and its labyrinth-like grounds, meant to convey the dark foreboding of the castle’s curse, have a cold and ugly sheen, more appropriate to the Dark Knight franchise than a family friendly fantasy.

Likewise, the CGI wizardry that makes talking coat racks, wardrobes, clocks, and teapots come to life lacks any palpable magic. As in the previous film, Lumiere the Candlestick (voice by Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth the clock (voice by Ian McKellen) come off best. But like the digital effects that sunk the dreary Hugo, they’re laden by sterility, with no attempt at animating expression into their “faces.” This is supposed to make them look more realistic, though why that’s the goal is anybody’s guess. This is fantasy after all.

Not surprisingly, the classic fairy tale story is strangled to death by the excess. Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls) directs with the finesse of a traffic cop. His eye is purely functional. Lacking any discernible vision of his own, his most effective shots are often lifted directly from the animated original. And Condon rushes his scenes, never allowing his camera to dwell on a mystery or create suspense. Only in the film’s final third, when he slows things down a bit to let the title characters do some prerequisite bonding, does he offer us any approachable humanity. Yet despite the quickened pace, the film seems almost unbearably long. When a movie engages its viewers, even the longest running times can seem to fly by. But getting through two hours and seven minutes of this film is an ordeal.

As a musical, the film isn’t much better. The best film musicals have an immediacy that draws you in and makes you forget the inherent artificiality of the format. Here, the numbers seem mechanical and rehearsed, the best being nearly identical stagings of those in the animated version. Those songs were memorable, if unexceptional. But the new ones are generally awful. These are the kind of boring, ear-numbing melodies and banal lyrics that only a generation raised believing Les Miserables was a great musical could love. At least they’re sung well. Emma Watson as Belle, perfectly embodies the determined innocence of the postmodern Disney heroine. Her voice is sweet, but devoid of the cloyingly precious over-singing that has become the standard for Disney princesses. Audra McDonald, arguably Broadway’s all-time greatest diva, sings memorably in two brief pieces that bookend the film. But the standout is Dan Stevens as the beast. Steven’s gorgeous and forceful tenor reflects the beast’s great strength in spite of ineffectual and undeserving material.

The nonmusical performances are mostly adequate. Luke Evans is appropriately dastardly (and handsome) as that eternal tool, Gaston, and Josh Gad as the foppish LeFou provides the film with much needed comic relief. But Kevin Kline, as Belle’s father, is so devoid of character he barely registers. Surely an actor of Kline’s stature could have brought an interesting detail or two to the man whose importance to Belle is a major impetus for the plot. McGregor, Mckellan and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts make solid appearances but lack the vocal richness of Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers and Angela Lansbury who voiced the same characters in the 1991 film.

Disney’s animated original, as good as it was, was not the best film adaptation of this oft-told story. That version is and always will be Jean Cocteau’s legendary 1946 French classic La Belle et la Bete. Filmed in glorious black and white and directed with haunting and poetic flair, it’s not just the best version of this story, it’s one of the most enchanting and beautiful fantasies ever put on film, a stirring reminder of the movies’ potential to enchant and enthrall.

For the present, though, we’re stuck with this train wreck. Artistically, there is no reason for this film to exist. Why remake a film that’s already great? Why not remake the ones that didn’t quite work? Maybe a second attempt might get it right. And why remake Beauty and the Beast? The 1991 animated film was a true feather in the Disney animation cap. Solidifying the creative rebirth of the studio’s animation department, the film became the first full-length animated film to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination and helped revive the popularity of the movie musical.

So why remake it? The answer as always is green. The money hungry Disney behemoth will no doubt earn huge profits for its stockholders with this effort and its success will surely usher in more pointless and soulless remakes. And audiences, sadly, will waste their hard-earned dollars in their perpetual pursuit of that transcendent movie experience that films like this promise but don’t deliver. They would do best to pass this one up and rent the Cocteau film (subtitled version only, please) and experience for themselves what true cinema magic feels like.

Score: 55/100