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Beauty and the Beast (2017)

DIRECTOR: Bill Condon

CAST: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald

REVIEW:

Following in the footsteps of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is the latest (and arguably most ambitious yet) entry in Disney’s recent dubious fixation with throwing a lot of money around remaking its classic animated films as live-action versions.  For those who decry virtually shot-for-shot remakes of Disney classics that didn’t need to be remade (especially with “new” versions that are content to slavishly follow the source material rather than doing any different or innovative on their own), Beauty and the Beast is unlikely to convert them into the fold.  It’s technically well-made, handsomely-filmed, served up with a loving dose of nostalgia as a lavish love letter to the 1991 original, but despite sumptuous sets and flashy special effects, it lacks the heart and charm of the original.  There’s a sense of a by-the-numbers hollowness to the proceedings, like a competent but uninspired cover of a classic song.  Fans may enjoy themselves out of nostalgia, but it never escapes the shadow of its forefather (nor does it try).

The story hews very closely to the 1991 original.  As anyone reading this probably knows, it’s the vaguely 18th century tale of the unlikely love story between free-spirited village girl Belle (Emma Watson) and The Beast (Dan Stevens), a prince cursed by an enchantress for his vanity and callousness to live as a monster unless he can learn to love another and receive their love in return before the enchanted rose sheds its last petal (his castle servants were also transformed, into household objects like silverware, candlesticks, pianos, wardrobes, etc.).  When Belle’s father Maurice (Kevin Kline) gets lost in the woods and inadvertently trespasses on the castle grounds, the curmudgeonly Beast throws him in the dungeon.  Our plucky heroine Belle swaps her father’s freedom for her own, and with help from the matchmaking candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), teacup Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), and cantankerous clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), thus begins a tentative friendship and a chance for romance.  But meanwhile, Belle’s jealous would-be suitor Gaston (Luke Evans) rallies a mob to storm the castle and slay the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast is very much a faithful live-action adaptation of the original animated film, sometimes shot-for-shot and including all the well-known musical numbers (scenes like the unsubtle Sound of Music homage with Belle singing in the hills, and the ballroom dance, are filmed similarly), with no big surprises to be found.  In fact, the few and inconsequential additions, mostly consisting of a few original songs (presumably to make it eligible for Oscar nomination, as the 2012 Les Mis did with its original song “Suddenly”), serve no real purpose except to pad out the runtime and drag things down.  Dan Stevens has a nice voice for belting out The Beast’s ballad “Evermore”, but the lyrics drive the point home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the song is kind of boring.  More effective (or at least less objectionable) are small additions giving a little more background to Belle and The Beast’s backstories, and a slightly expanded role for The Enchantress (Hattie Morahan).  The movie also plugs a couple plot holes, by making the servants slightly more complicit in the Prince’s behavior, and explaining why the villagers seem oblivious to the huge castle a stone’s throw away.  The movie generated a little controversy by at least implying that Gaston’s sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) would like to be a little more than his “best friend”, but both Disney patting itself on the back about its “progressive” stance, and the ensuing scattered boycotts, smack of making a mountain out of a molehill.  Implications that LeFou is gay are coy and fleeting (there is a shot in the ending ball of him dancing with another man, but it goes by in about two seconds).  None of these additions add anything crucial, and mostly serve only to muddy the waters.  The two hour and ten minute runtime feels a little overlong and there are times when the pace flags.  The musical numbers from the original are faithfully presented, but scenes like “Be Our Guest”, despite trying really hard to be show-stealing with a big elaborate CGI-fest fall a little flat and lack energy, as does “Gaston”, which isn’t as satirical or playful as the original.  Like 2012’s Les Mis, the actors all do their own singing.  Emma Watson doesn’t have the pipes of Paige O’Hara, but her voice is fine (if not spectacular), and the rest are all at least adequate (Dan Stevens has perhaps the strongest voice), although while Emma Thompson gives a nice rendition of “Beauty and the Beast”, it loses a little something without Angela Lansbury’s voice.  The movie is handsomely-filmed, with sumptuous sets; the provincial village has a quaint, fairy tale feel, and The Beast’s castle has a gothic air.  Alas, the CGI is not as effective.  The Beast looks overly cartoony and not up to the standards we’ve come to expect from CGI characters in recent years from such examples as Gollum, the Na’vi in Avataror the apes in the new Planet of the Apes series, and the servants’ designs are vaguely creepy.

The cast is a mixed bag, and like the film itself, some characters feel like paler imitations of the originals.  Emma Watson is cute and perky, but not really convincing as a great beauty (her girlishness doesn’t help), and her Belle is a bit bland and dull.  One wonders if perhaps Anne Hathaway, who won an Oscar as Fantine in Les Mis, might have brought a little more to the part.  Likewise, Luke Evans’ Gaston, a role that should be a deliciously campy romp, lacks a certain panache, and like Watson, Evans isn’t really an exceptional enough physical specimen to warrant the lyrics that are sung about him (in fact, Chris Pine’s unsavory “Prince Charming” in Into the Woods is arguably a better pseudo-Gaston than the Gaston here).  Dan Stevens is solid as The Beast, affecting a booming, resonant baritone that recalls Robbie Benson’s original, even if he spends the vast majority of his “screentime”, apart from the prologue and ending, as the voice of dodgy CGI.  Likewise, Ewan McGregor (affecting an intentionally over-the-top French accent that sounds like something out of a Monty Python skit), Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson are delightful as Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts, even though they don’t show their faces until the final few minutes.  Kevin Kline brings warmth to Belle’s quirky inventor father Maurice, who’s not quite as much of a dolt as he was in the original version.

Overall, Beauty and the Beast is “fine” in the same way a competent cover of a classic song is “fine”.   It’s technically well-made, an obviously affectionate love letter to the beloved original, it’s pleasant and enjoyable and inoffensive, but it lacks a certain heart and magic, and there’s a hollowness about the proceedings, as if the filmmakers made a meticulously faithful live-action remake for no real pressing reason than because they could and because nostalgia is a powerful thing.  The signature moments are all onhand, but they lack a certain “oomph”, as if they’re ticks on an obligatory checklist.  For devoted fans of the original, this live-action regurgitation of the classic may bring a nostalgic smile, but it’s not likely to go down as a classic in its own right.

* * 1/2

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