There was a mix of excitement and (understandable) annoyance when Disney announced there would be a live-action remake of what one could make a case for being their most beloved film, Beauty and the Beast. Disney has been on a bit of kick with their remakes as of late, some of which have been welcome and necessary, other decidedly not. In the case of Bill Condon’s remake of Beauty and the Beast, I’d group it in the latter camp.
That’s not to say the film isn’t good; it is. It’s essentially a carbon copy of the 1991 original, how could it not be? The failure of Bill Condon’s remake of the animated Disney classic is not that’s lacking in quality–the cast is uniformly solid, the production design is breath-taking, and the music is as good as it ever was. The failure is that is never in it’s two-plus hour runtime does it justify it’s existence. There’s nothing that this new film does better than its animated counterpart; at it’s best, it’s only ever on part.
First off, let’s be honest with ourselves, and admit that this should barely qualify as a live-action remake. Most of the characters are CGI add-ins; it’s not live-action, it’s just more realistic animation. This leads (as effects heavy extravaganzas are wont to do) to visual dissonance. In animated film, even when a human is sharing the screen with a talking teapot, everything has a similar aesthetic across the board, so it’s a lot easier to take. Look at a real human interacting with a teapot created from CGI and it’s not even half as convincing. The human eye is too good, we’re acutely aware that the teapot isn’t there. The actors suffer as well. The Star Wars prequels proved that it doesn’t matter what level of thespian you are, it’s damn near impossible to react appropriately to something you can’t see.
The heavy use of effects may have contributed to dulled performances of the two leads. Beloved childhood icon Emma Watson plays Belle, who’s probably undergone the most change in comparison to the original: she has a brand new tragic backstory (everyone in this movie has a tacked on tragic backstory) and her bookish nature has made her the town pariah instead of just the town oddball. I’ve always been a bit critical of Watson’s acting–she typically has two modes, playfully skeptical or standoffish–but given as she’s acting against characters added in post-production, her stiffness here is a casualty of modern technology more than a reflection of her talent. Dan Stevens fairs a little better as the Beast, but buried under layers of computer effects, his relatively subtle performance doesn’t quite register. Neither lead’s singing is anything to write home about. The only standout here is Luke Evans as Gaston, singing his ass off in an appropriately hammy performance.
The movie has a lot of dazzle to it, and it’s spectacular set and costume design should not go ignored by the Academy. Disney should be commended for building an actual set–one with such elaborate detail, at that–when most studios would have without question opted to shoot against a green screen. Lacking quite as much specificity of design are the special effects that comprise most of the supporting cast. Singing and dancing candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) is given an anthropomorphised design that makes him a lot more complicated than the eye can take it. Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) fares better, given a human face and remaining mostly stationary. The others–Ian McKellan as a clock, Audra MacDonald as a wardrobe, and Stanley Tucci as a piano–are so overly designed that I had a hard time making out exactly where their faces were, be gone with trying to read expressions.
The plot follows almost beat-for-beat that of the original film (with a few exceptions that I personally found unnecessary). As I said, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing–it’s to hard copy a good movie and get bad results–but it led me to wonder: what’s the point? Disney spent close to 300 million dollars on this movie and for all that money it really feels like a waste. I seriously question the taste of anyone who would revisit this rather than the much superior original. The animated film felt something inspired, and signaled both the beginning of an era for Disney, kicking off their 90’s renaissance, as well as a reinvention of the trope of the Disney princess. But that was in 1991. The genre has long since mined the innovations of Beauty and the Beast and for 300 million dollars and a film that is a guaranteed hit more risks could have been taken. As is, the film comes off as a tale as old as time in the worst way.
Rating: Catch a matinee showing; you know you’re going to see it in theaters, stop lying to yourself.