Beauty and the Beast (2017)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/17/17 03:53:52
Once upon a time, back in those long-ago days before cable and the various home video delivery systems, Walt Disney Studios had an ingenious method for maximizing their library of films for maximums profits by rereleasing their classic animated films every seven years or so for new generations of moviegoers to enjoy. This lasted well into the VHS era but by the early 90s, this particular approach had pretty much run its course from a financial standpoint. Never one to leave a corporate asset alone when there is the possibility of squeezing an extra few hundred million dollars or so, Disney Studios has established a cottage industry of late in taking many of the best-known titles from its long legacy of animated film classics and remaking them in live-action with flesh-and-blood actors and elaborate CGI effects being deployed to retrace the originals. So far, we have seen new versions of the likes of “101 Dalmatians,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Maleficent” (in which we learned the backstory of what made the villain of “Sleeping Beauty” so upset in the first place), “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book” and over the next few years, we will also get to see new takes on the likes of “Mulan,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” “The Lion King,” a “101 Dalmatians” prequel giving a “Maleficent”-style look at what made Cruella de Ville the monster that she became (which I guess means that it ends with Emma Stone discovering the joy of killing cute animals, which seems a tad bleak for the Happy Meal set) and, perhaps stupidest of all, a new take on “Dumbo” directed by Tim Burton, whose soulless version of “Alice in Wonderland” remains the single worst film of his entire career.From a commercial standpoint, their latest live-action remake, a new version of “Beauty and the Beast,” would appear to be the most sure-fire cinematic proposition imaginable of any film not including the words “Star Wars” in the title. The inspiration, of course, is the magnificent 1991 film that remains one of the crown jewels of their catalogue—certainly the finest of the ones made after the death of Walt Disney—was the first animated film to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and inspired an equally successful stage adaptation. To bring it to the screen, Disney has sunk untold millions of dollars and assembled a collection of talent that includes director Bill Condon, whose bonfides as a maker of contemporary screen musicals were established through writing the screenplay for “Chicago” and directing “Dreamgirls,” lyricist Tim Rice to collaborate with original composer Alan Menken on some new songs to augment the classic score that Menken did with the late Howard Ashman and a group of actors led by the perfectly cast Emma Watson as Belle and also featuring the likes of Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-RawIan McKellan and Emma Thompson. With that kind of firepower behind it, it could be the worst movie ever made and it would still make a billion dollars or so—hey, it happened with “Alice in Wonderland.” It is thankfully better than that and the target audience will no doubt eat it up and return for numerous helpings but for all of the time, money and talent that has been lavished on it, the one key thing that it lacks is a reason to exist for any other reason than to fatten up the studio coffers. Without that, all of the magic and enchantment spread out across the screen (and in 3D and IMAX for those willing to kick in the extra bucks) can’t overcome a certain hollowness at its core.
Between the original fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and a number of screen adaptations, official and otherwise, over the years that have run the gamut from the sublime poetry of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French version to the soft-core silliness (which I guess constitutes a sort of sublime poetry in its own right) that was the Sherilyn Fenn Skinemax favorite “Meridian” (a.k.a. “Kiss of the Beast” and trust me, the beast does a lot more than kiss in that one), a recap of the plot seems almost superfluous. In a picture-perfect French village—the kind where no one actually speaks French per se—Belle (Watson) lives with her dotty inventor father Maurice (Kline) and feels ostracized from most of the others in town because she prefers doing things like reading books, devising contraptions of her own and helping to further the education of the young girls in town to simply looking pretty and waiting for a husband, even though the town’s most eligible bachelor, the egomaniacal lout Gaston (Luke Evans) has set his sights on her and won’t take note for an answer. One day, Maurice goes out on his rounds but only his horse comes back and when Belle goes out to search for him, she tracks him down to a remote castle where he has been imprisoned by its owner, a nasty-looking creature known as The Beast (Dan Stevens), and ends up taking her father’s place.
As we know, already, the Beast was not always the gruff and hideous monster that we see. Once, he was a handsome but arrogant douchebag prince whose cruel treatment of a haggard woman (Hattie Morahan) who came upon his castle went badly when she proved to be an enchantress who proceeded to place him under a curse that made him as ugly on the outside as he was on the inside—if he doesn’t find and receive true love before a magic rose loses all of its petals, he and all the similarly enchanted denizens of the castle, including candelabra Lumiere (McGregor), clock Cogsworth (McKellan), piano Cadenza, wardrobe Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald) and chipper teapot Mrs. Potts (Thompson), are doomed. At first, Belle vows that she could never love someone as mean as the Beast but as time goes on, his softer side begins to shine through (of course, he also grants her access to a gigantic library and saves her from a pack of wolves when she tries to escape) and while “love” may be out of the question, an undeniable affection does begin to develop between them. While all this is going on, Maurice is trying to convince someone to help him rescue Belle and when Gaston hears of it, he contrives to have the old man locked away as a means of forcing Belle to marry him and then stirs up enough local anti-Beast sentiment among the townspeople to send them up to the castle to get rid of him once and for all.
So yeah, this version of “Beauty and the Beast” pretty much follows in the footsteps of the animated version but it isn’t just a matter of screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos sticking with what worked the first time around. Every aspect of the film seems weirdly beholden to the previous film to the point where the individual scenes mirror what came before with the kind of specificity not seen since Gus van Sant set about doing his shot-by-shot retread of “Psycho.” For a little while, seeing these scenes being recreated is sort of intriguing but after a while, the effect grows slightly monotonous once it sinks in that it doesn’t plan on straying off the reservation if it can at all help it. What makes it especially superfluous is that so much computer-generated trickery has gone into bringing this version to life that it probably technically contains almost as much animation as its predecessor. If Condon had figured out a way to do it all in a light and off-handed manner but the sheer weight of all the effort that has gone into it bogs down far too many scenes—the worst example is the once-immortal “Be My Guest” number, which was once a show-stopper in the best sense of the word but is now so lugubrious in its staging that it becomes a show-stopper in the worst sense, in that it brings the proceedings to a dead halt. The omnipresent technological innovations even wind up subverting the very element at the heart of the story—the growing relationship between Belle and the Beast. In the best versions of the story, their love becomes so convincing and palpable that when the latter reverts to human form at the very end, it feels a bit disappointing because we have so completely invested in the Beast as a character. Here, the character is one of those motion-capture creations like Gollum or King Kong and while the end result is undeniably impressive from a technical standpoint, it doesn’t work from an emotional one because we never get a sense that Belle and the Beast are really connecting—despite the considerable efforts of Watson, who has plenty of experience of working opposite CGI creations, you never feel like the two are inhabiting the same space, not even during the famous centerpiece ballroom dance sequence.
That said, there are times when “Beauty and the Beast” does try to go off on its own but those attempts result in some of the weakest moments in the film. The animated version ran a mere 84 minutes but for whatever reason—presumably either an effort to give it a more epic feel or to stave off complaints of people paying top dollar for super-premium presentations that clock in at under 90 minutes—this one runs 129 minutes and while an extended end credits sequence takes up a chunk of it, this version of the story still runs more than a half-hour longer and includes extensions of some scenes, a couple of added plot threads and embellishments and the aforementioned three new songs written especially for the film. However, not one of these new bits of business adds anything more to the proceedings other than time on the clock. The songs are nowhere close to even the weakest of the gems that Ashman and Menken came up with the first time around and by adding three more full production numbers to a narrative that wasn’t exactly wanting for such things, they only wind up diluting the power of the best ones by their mere presence. As for the additional scenes, none of them are particularly necessary (and some seem to have been included in order to beef up Kevin Kline’s role) and the one in which we discover the tragic circumstances of what happened to Belle’s formerly unseen mother, will probably traumatize many of the youngest audience members. If nothing else, this version of “Beauty and the Beast” proves just what a model of economic storytelling the animated version truly was by showing via the additional bloat that less truly is indeed more in certain cases. There is one addition that does work and that is Belle’s last line of dialogue, which I will not ruin for you except to note that it actually serves as a corrective to the one real flaw of the original—the fact that the Beast reverting to human form at the end is a bit of a letdown.
The best thing about “Beauty and the Beast” by a wide margin is the performance by Emma Watson as Belle. Having spent her post-Harry Potter career to date either working as part of large ensemble casts (most impressively in “My Week with Marilyn” and “The Bling Ring”) and as the lead in smaller misfires that barely saw the light of a movie theater, this is really her first time as the front-and-center star of a big project and she takes to it wonderfully. Amidst all of the fantastical elements surrounding her, she manages to bring a genuine sense of humanity to the proceedings with her fierce intelligence, sense of humor and ability to connect with audiences on an emotional level. Hell, she even demonstrates a reasonably impressive singing voice as well to add to her array of talents. Of the others in the cast, Dan Stevens might have made for a decent Beast if the film had gone with traditional makeup for his character but the CGI stuff ends up nullifying all the charisma he has displayed in films like “The Guest,” Kevin Kline cannot decide if he is going to be Serious Kevin Kline or Goofy Kevin Kline and winds up navigating between the two with little effect and the array of top actors employed to voice the various living accoutrements of the Beast’s castle are okay but not especially memorable—even while listening to Ewan McGregor’s take on Lumiere, most people watching the film will still be hearing Jerry Orbach in their heads. The one performance besides Watson’s that really does stand out in a good way is Luke Evans’ work as the oafish Gaston, a role that he tears into with enough bluster and braggadocio that his every appearance (at least until the final scenes in which Gaston goes full psycho) inspires big laughs. Weirdly enough, he actually winds up demonstrating more believable on-screen chemistry with Watson than Stevens does—this may simply be the result of Watson being able to play off of an actual human being but the result is certainly odd.
Look, I am fully aware that “Beauty and the Beast” is as critic-proof of a film as can be and if you have kids, especially young daughters, you are pretty much required to take them to see it. Whether or not you will like it, however, will depend on what you are looking for in it. If all you want to see is a slavish recreation of the animated film with living actors and state-of-the-art visual effects and nothing else, then yes, it is worth the price of a ticket, even with the IMAX upgrade. However, when you compare it to such previous takes on the tale as the animated version, the 1946 Jean Cocteau version or even the recent live-action take on it from France with Vincent Cassel and Lea Seydoux, it just lacks the magic and beauty that those iterations possessed. Those films were gorgeous fantasies with the power to transport and inspire audiences of all ages. This one, on the other hand, feels more like a filmed version of an extremely lucrative business deal than anything else—nice if you are one of the immediate beneficiaries of such a deal but not so much if you aren’t.One final note. There has been no small amount of talk regarding one of the supporting characters in the film--Gaston's lackey (Josh Gad)--supposedly being the first openly gay character in a Disney movie. (This point could probably be argued but that is neither here nor there.) Inevitably, this is led to some people being outraged and fulminating on the Internet about the potential horror of taking the family to see even a hint of homosexuality in a musical production. First of all, it is not as if we see the character getting it on "Cruising"-style, unless they added something after the end credits that I missed--what we do get are a couple of foppish quips and a brief moment during the final ballroom dance where that character starts dancing with a man who is, for reasons I have forgotten, wearing a dress. Second, despite the meaningful two-second glance between those characters in that last shot, there is more overt gay content to be had in one of those Bugs Bunny cartoons where he dresses up like a woman and Elmer Fudd falls in love with him. If anyone is going to get upset at something that benign, that says something about them that is far more troubling than the notion of kids seeing two men dancing. There are plenty of reasons to have problems with "Beauty and the Beast" but that may be the least of them
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