The money-printing movie factory that is Disney is in the midst of a wave of live-action, photoreal redos. Maleficent, Cinderella and The Jungle Book proved to be box-office gold, even if they varied in quality. And here we are with Beauty and the Beast, a colourful, energetic live-action adaptation that has a lot that works, and some things that just don’t.
As it should, the new film takes most of its cues directly from the animated classic. The basics of the plot are kept the same, although screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (Hercules, The Huntsman: Winter’s War) do well to expand the narrative with backstory and weightier mythos. There are a number of other key elements introduced in this longer take, including a nice prologue focusing on the titular Beast and three new songs, but what’s new is best experienced with little prior knowledge, and it won’t matter for those that don’t know the animated predecessor back to front anyway.
Emma Watson delivers a good performance as Belle, a determined, passionate girl who is sick of her small-town life and the lack of adventure it contains. While Watson certainly holds her own in some admittedly demanding scenes, such as those leading in and out of song while balancing both Belle’s strength and fear, there’s almost an invisible wall safeguarding her performance from stepping into anything substantial. As with much of the film, Belle is kept in a well-intentioned, creatively claustrophobic space; Disney’s tropes are apparently good enough to call the shots, even for a remake, and director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Twilight Saga) ensures they’re the ones firmly holding the reins here.
This highlights a bigger problem with Beauty and the Beast. The love of the original is clear and the craftsmanship is evident, but there’s an awkward mash-up of the creative and the cliché, the gutsy and the frustratingly safe, the exciting and the dull. The production, for example, exhibits this dilemma as a whole. Many scenes proudly show off that Disney money, with gorgeous costumes, lovingly designed sets and impressive choreography, but then they collide with a number of ill-designed CG characters, the intermittent delivery of cringe, and that occasional feeling that we’ll be seeing crew members or stage hands if the camera pans one inch off course.
Beast and the array of humans-turned-castle… things living with him are well written and are given strong character beats, but it’s the technology and the overall designs that let them down. These talking items, Lumière the candelabra and Chip the teacup in particular, often make for uneasy visuals, strange creations that simply don’t hold a candle to their animated predecessors. That being said, the voice work is decent – Ewan McGregor is especially fun as the aforementioned Lumière.
It’s Beast that proves to be the biggest disappointment. I am talking completely on a visual level, but when one of the two primary characters is a computer-generated hairy beast, it’s a factor that can’t be overlooked. On a basic level, Beast is an adequate creation, he’s soft on the eyes, almost cute for the kiddies, and Dan Stevens’ acting work behind the graphics manages to come through. If only the character’s digital design didn’t seem half rendered. His facial expressions are often flat, with an overall cartoony, obviously digital look that doesn’t exactly gel well with the live-action human he’s constantly interacting with. It’s a shame more care didn’t go into Beast’s creation; perhaps they should have just gone the practical make up route instead of CG animation. Luckily, Stevens turn does break through on occasion, sometimes providing a convincing and heartfelt rendition of the cursed prince.
Luke Evans is perhaps the most pleasant surprise here. The actor appears to relish playing the part of the villainous, self-worshiping Gaston. Evans taps into the camp, over-the-top traits that make Gaston fun to watch, poking fun at his own good looks and showing off a great voice to boot. As his right-hand man, Josh Gad is a well-cast LeFou, a character given just the right amount of screen time to provide both humour and a bit of an unfortunate stereotype – the latter despite a welcome (and perhaps overly publicised) blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment towards the end.
The film wants to grab the viewer with its confident energy and unabashed nostalgia, and it mostly works. Spectacle is delivered thanks to Sarah Greenwood’s (Atonement, Sherlock Holmes) standout production design, Jacqueline Durran’s (Anna Karenina) costume design, Tobias A. Schliessler’s (Dreamgirls, Lone Survivor) cinematography, and, of course, the music. The score and the wonderful songs are the film’s best cards, and they are laid down wonderfully throughout. Eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken, who earned two Oscar wins (Best Score and Best Song – “Beauty and the Beast,” shared posthumously with Howard Ashman) for his work in the original, is at his usual best here, beefing up some of the classics and driving home new works in some of the film’s best moments. The music makes up the soul of the film, and it’s what will likely stick with audiences long after the credits roll.
This isn’t quite the jaw-dropping work of wonder we’d like to justify Disney adapting a work as beloved as Beauty and the Beast, but there’s enough of value here to still make it worth your time. The nostalgia factor will certainly have those emotions welling up, especially around that admittedly heart-rending finale, much of the artistry will impress on the big screen and, at the very least, the music running throughout will do much to win you over. How much it all amounts to and whether your memory bank will be making room for it is another matter.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10