Film Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Dir: Bill Condon
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, lots of big names.
Runtime: 129 min
Spoiler Level: If you’ve seen the 1991 version, light. It’s a tale as old as time so you should probably know the gist by now…

I am part of the lucky generation who grew up during the majority of the “Disney Renaissance” period, which started with The Little Mermaid (1989) and concluded with Tarzan (1999). Though I love all of the titles that came out during that decade, my favorite installment in the echelon of Disney’s most enchanting films is 1991’s acclaimed Beauty & the Beast.

Beauty-Beast-2017-Movie-PostersWhen I heard that Disney was planning to make a live-action version of the animated classic, I was conflicted. The recent Disney live action remakes have been impressive in their own way – Cinderella (2015) added new dimensions to a well-loved story, The Jungle Book (2016) brought new twists and amazing visuals, and the heart-warming Pete’s Dragon (2016) had a bigger impact than the animated version. But when it comes to one of Disney’s most iconic properties, why even do a remake? What can a remake accomplish that the original – a critically-lauded, award-winning, massive success – didn’t already do? What is the purpose of a remake, besides taking a cartoon and making it live-action?

As such, it’s easy to dismiss movies like this as a cash-grab…and on some level, this film is one. Blatantly, even. But Disney’s 2017 spin on the tale as old as time contains almost as much magic as the original – it’s a faithful, gorgeous adaptation that breathes new life into a familiar tale of love, family, and the true meaning of beauty.

Like the original fairy-tale and the 1991 classic, Beauty and the Beast follows Belle, the titular “Beauty” who is considered odd by the other residents of her small, provincial town. After trading her fate for her father’s in a life-changing decision, Belle becomes a prisoner of the mysterious (and mega-grouchy) Beast in an enchanted castle full of magical objects. But as the pair spends time together, both Belle and the Beast begin to discover that there might be something there that wasn’t there before.

The cast is superb; especially considering, unless you’ve never seen the original, it is difficult not to compare them to their 1991 counterparts. For me, there were no major moments of “Oh, so-and-so was/is so much better than so-and-so” during the film- the new voices and faces were not swallowed by the shadows of their predecessors. Emma Watson is mostly lovely (but also wooden at times) in her role as Belle, while Dan Stevens growls and charms as the Beast, and their chemistry (even with Stevens cloaked in CGI) creates a captivating romance. Ewan MacGregor makes a fine Lumiere, who gleefully (and frequently) spars with the uptight Cogsworth, played by a wonderfully gruff Ian McKellan. Emma Thompson channels the maternal mentality of Mrs. Potts, while newcomer Nathan Mack brings cheer to spunky teacup Chip. Audra McDonald is brilliantly bombastic as Mme. de Garderobe, and Stanley Tucci, as the harpsichord Cadenza, is a pleasant addition to the ensemble. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is great as Lumiere’s love, the feathery Plumette. Kevin Kline’s turn as Maurice, Belle’s father, is a spirited change; Maurice was more of a kooky, bumbling-yet-lovable oaf in the animated feature, but in this version, his character is granted a more solid identity, and his motivations are made clearer.

Luke Evans nails his role as the suave, ego-maniacal villain Gaston, providing a convincing blend of brawn, arrogance, and Machiavellian scheming, while still somehow managing to earn a few laughs. And while he might not actually be “roughly the size of a barge” in real life, Evans’ spectacular vocal ability makes up for it, and his performance is one of the highlights of the film. Josh Gad’s portrayal of LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick, is another example of excellent casting – he manages to balance the comic-relief with genuine characterization. The role garnered some buzz prior to the film’s release due to the revelation that the character in this version is meant to be gay, an announcement that caused some (ridiculous) backlash. I was expecting the change to be obvious, but the role is, other than a few nuances, very similar to his cartoon counterpart, so the inclusion of his sexuality is more “blink and you miss it” than anything else, and it’s been blown massively out of proportion. Also, shout-out to whatever horse (or horses) played Philippe, because damn, that horse had to run. I got tired just watching him.

Since the film is padded by about 50 minutes of additional running time compared to the original, a significant amount of new material is packed in – and the bulk of it helps to answer questions and sew up plot holes from its predecessor. The Beast’s curse is discussed in greater detail, the Enchantress has an expanded role, we get more insight into both Beast’s and Belle’s backstories, several characters get new “layers” to their personalities (the Beast ACTUALLY READS some of the hundreds of books in his library, for example), elements from the original fairy-tale are woven into the narrative, some humor is sprinkled in (I full-on LOL’d at least three times), and, of course, there are new musical numbers – so the Beast finally gets to belt out his own anguished solo. The additions and tweaks served to expand the story, while keeping the original plot largely the same; a compelling combination of both old and new.

One major draw of the animated film is the music; Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s original score and songs are some of the greatest in Disney’s ever-growing jukebox. Though a handful of lyrics have been altered for the new film, the big songs manage to retain their allure; “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” are delivered with spectacle and enthusiasm (thank GOD they kept the “I’m especially good at expectorating” line), and Emma Thompson capably captures the charm of “Beauty & the Beast,” holding her own against Angela Lansbury’s version. I also loved “The Mob Song,” and was thrilled that Audra McDonald  featured in “Beauty & the Beast – Reprise.” The score from Beauty & the Beast has always been my favorite from Menken, and the new film introduces additional themes/motifs that blend seamlessly with the original sound, which somehow accomplishes the difficult task of making an already amazing score even better.

As expected, the visuals of the film are stunning. Tangent; since I’m a slave to consumerism, I shelled out for the IMAX 3D and definitely thought it was worth the extra cash. Generally, I prefer IMAX because it’s mega loud and can usually drown out any obnoxious chatter in the theater. I know some folks consider 3D superfluous, and they’re right about 97% of the time, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t freaking cool. I like 3D, so sue me. Maybe I want a tiny teacup flying at my head, OKAY? Sprinkles aren’t necessary on ice cream, but I will enjoy them if given the opportunity, even at an additional cost. End tangent. The new interpretations of the characters (including the Beast) are fitting for a somewhat “darker” atmosphere, and the sets are breathtaking; the castle in particular. The costumes were also brilliant (I liked the more “French” flair to the outfits) and, though it’s early, I would not be surprised by an Oscar nod for the costuming, or the set design.

Disney faced a tall order when they decided to tackle a live-action remake of their already-beloved tale as old as time, and this new interpretation hits a lot of high notes. That said… I do have some complaints. Allow me to remove my rose-tinted nostalgia goggles and discuss the less magical aspects of the film…

While we get a peek into the Prince/Beast’s backstory, I would have liked a closer look. His backstory is touched upon, but not explored enough to answer subsequent questions. My curiosity was piqued, but left unsatisfied, and it makes me wonder if a longer look into his past was left on the cutting room floor. On a similar note, some of the more “emotional” scenes in the film did not strike me quite as hard as they did in the animated version. I’ve seen the transformation scene about 7 billion times and I get choked up each and every time; but not in this one. Then again, I did get a little teary during the finale. So maybe it just took my tear ducts a moment to catch up. The editing is also choppy in places during the first arc of the film, but nothing too grating, and the message is too heavy-handed at times, especially when it comes to Belle’s (and the film’s) insistence that she is “not a princess,” as a “show not tell” approach would have likely been more effective.

It is also worth noting that the entire cast can sing. Nobody is onscreen wailing like a dying rhino, ruining the music, and I wasn’t cringing in my seat during any of the big numbers. But it is noticeable (and somewhat distracting) when some members of the lead cast can sing, while others can sing. This is most apparent with Watson’s performance as Belle. I’m not saying that she’s a bad singer, because she isn’t – but the auto-tuning made the distinction more jarring, especially when coupled with seasoned vocalists like Audra McDonald or Luke Evans. This Belle had an innocent, sweet sound to her voice – fitting for the young woman who yearns for adventure in the great, wide somewhere – but it sounded unnatural at the same time. If you stack Watson against Belle’s original voice, Paige O’Hara, or Susan Egan, the original Broadway Belle, it is no contest, but I still would have preferred an authentic sound over the saccharine sheen of auto-tune.

Also, while I liked the added songs, none of them stuck in my head apart from “Evermore,” the Beast’s solo number –  it brought new emphasis to Beast’s emotional state at that point in the narrative. The absence of “Human Again,” the song cut from the 1991 film, was a huge disappointment; it’s replacement, “Days in the Sun” is nice, but it doesn’t pack as much punch as the original tunes. I also hoped for one or two of the songs from the Broadway musical to get tossed in, especially the haunting “If I Can’t Love Her,” but “Evermore” served a similar function, and the score does include a motif from “Home” in the scenes where Belle examines her new living quarters, which was a nice nod to the Broadway version. Perhaps Menken and co. preferred to inject new material because they are gunning for on Oscar; if so, “Evermore” is their best bet. It’s early, but I’d love to see it earn a nomination.

Overall, the film preys on nostalgia, but that’s all part of “the business.” At least there’s actual effort and work put into it, as the additional material shows. Was this film necessary in any way? No – because the original film didn’t need to be improved upon in any meaningful capacity. But Disney’s latest remake is not a soulless, vacuous copy-and-paste job like some cynics would lead you to believe; it’s a refreshing look at a familiar story, and if you’re a fan of the original, I’d suggest giving it a fair chance. It’s not like you have to like one version and hate the other, and I think some folks set their expectations for this film so high that anything less than perfection was doomed to fall out of favor. Regardless, it is possible to appreciate both versions of this tale; the new allows for a revitalizing look at an enchanting classic, and the old maintains timeless magic and a concise, yet effective story. Besides, if you’re one of those folks who are anti-remake (I am most of the time, but it depends on the film) you should probably strap in for the long-haul, because there are plenty more on the way.

While it’s true that this film did not need to be made… I’m glad it was, flaws and all. With this installment in it’s continuing stream of live-action remakes, Disney has crafted a spell-binding experience made to charm old fans and woo new ones, and if you’re on the fence about seeing it, or if you’re one of the adamant naysayers, I’d say it’s worth seeing if you’re willing to go into it with an open mind. It might be bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, or even learning you were wrong.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

 

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