Beauty and the Beast: Once More With Feeling

How do you go about reproducing the charm and timeless appeal of one of Disney’s most celebrated animated films in a live-action format? Quite frankly, you don’t. Or perhaps more accurately, you can’t. On some level, the creators of the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast are fully aware of that, and it’s very difficult to blame them for trying to reproduce it. It’s a noble goal, but one that seems ultimately out of reach.

Indeed, even writing a plot summary for the film seems like a bit of a bother. At this point, we are all familiar with the story of the beautiful, bookish Belle (Emma Watson), who has been removed from her provincial life and installed as an attraction in the castle of a cruel prince who has been cursed into a beast (Dan Stevens). There’s talking furniture; a preening, cock of the walk villain (Luke Evans); and a love story that blooms between Belle and her monstrous captor/host.

It’s very difficult to fault the cast and crew of the new version for trying to replicate the charm and warmth of the original. After all, it’s one of Disney’s most beloved films, containing some of the Mouse House’s most memorable musical numbers. But even based on that qualified statement, Bill Condon’s direction can best be described as competent, and the musical performances could best be described as surprisingly appealing. There isn’t anything truly wrong with the production, but there’s also not enough things that are truly right about it to lift it up anywhere near the original’s lofty heights.

That is not to say that the film is not without its merits. Like Disney’s live-action Cinderella, which is probably the best contemporary to compare the new Beauty to, it has sumptuous and detailed design, from the swooping towers of Beast’s castle to the details of Belle’s gown. Like Cinderella, it has a fantastic, if often overqualified cast to keep itself buoyant. It even smooths over the plot holes and inconsistencies of the narrative it’s copying. While it doesn’t have anyone on the scale of Cate Blanchett’s fiercely fabulous Lady Tremaine, there is a hard standard that none of the actors ever fall under.

Unlike Cinderella, however, Beauty is often old-fashioned in less flattering ways and Condon lacks Kenneth Brannagh’s eye for movement and framing. The opening number, “Belle”, has the stolid, static composition of a mid-tier 1960s musical and isn’t nearly as exciting as the original, starting the whole thing off on a flat note. In fact, none of the musical numbers come close to matching the sweeping but gentle kineticsism of its forebear. The lone exception is “Be Our Guest”, which explodes with a colorful and tightly-choreographed energy that’s a chorus line away from outshining the iconic original. In contrast, the ballroom scene lacks the grandeur and movement of the original and feels more like an obligation than anything else.

One thing that this new version does accurately recreate is the talent pool making up its cast. In fact, Emma Watson’s Belle is arguably an improvement on the original. Her Belle feels less like a sprightly Broadway ingenue and more like the earthy, ahead-of-her-time young woman she’s written as. And her voice is lovely for an actor who just learned to sing about a year ago. Dan Stevens performs well as the Beast, perfectly mimicking the strong, gruffly charming delivery of Robby Benson. Luke Evans’ Gaston, on the other hand, takes the character in a fascinating new direction. While his Gaston no longer resembles a PG-rated Tom of Finland stud, he’s just as menacing and vicious, perhaps even more so now that his behavior isn’t softened by his hilariously exaggerated physique.

The supporting cast of talking furniture and objects is, like the original, an embarrassment of riches. Aside from Ewan McGregor’s distractingly-bad French accent as Lumiere, there isn’t a false note among them. Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw invest their animated objects with a more complex humanity than the original even while they appear remarkably and appropriately less human. While the appearance and movement of these creations is at first off-putting to those familiar with the original, the cast is so deft at giving spark to their roles that it’s easy to get more attached to their story than the main one.

One supporting character that needs his own examination is that of Le Fou, Gaston’s sidekick/toady, here played by an unaccented and slightly anachronistic Josh Gad. This version of Le Fou is Disney’s first (and so far only) canonically gay character, even if that is only established by a split-second moment in the film’s final scenes. Much controversy has erupted over this, although it’s completely blown out of proportion. In a film about a woman falling in love with an anthropomorphic water buffalo, Le Fou being gay is completely a non-issue. At the same time, it’s highly unfortunate that Disney’s first gay character is a prancing fancy man with no spine and no morals. Even more unfortunate is that the controversy overshadows Gad’s dedicated performance. His Le Fou is honestly more appealing and less buffoonish than the original, even if his character is just as intentionally irritating.

Good intentions and sincere dedication can make even the most questionable projects entertaining. It’s this vibe that truly informs this new Beauty. There seemed to be little reason to remake a film so vital to Disney’s history. If the original film was a tale as old as time, this new version is a tale as old as nostalgia. But at least it’s a charming, joyous nostalgia, and that has to amount to something. This Beauty may not be the most wonderful guest you could invite to your table, but at least it’s enjoyable while it’s there.

FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-