"Beauty and the Beast" Is Padded, Pretty, and Flawed
Remakes, adaptations, and sequels have always been part of cinema. Old ghost stories were adapted and made several times over by Universal Studios for their classic Monsters franchise. Ben-Hur was adapted into a play and made into two silent films before the classic 1959 film came around. Fairy tales seem to be as old as time, and the Mouse House has given us versions that have completely reshaped the public consciousness of these stories. Now, in the vein of old and new Hollywood, they are returning to their classic iterations of stories and presenting them in a new, live-action form. Luckily, they have had a good track record: Alice in Wonderland (2010), while not great, made over $1 billion; Cinderella (2015) was well-received, and; The Jungle Book (2016) was an all-around triumph that trumps even the animation for me. Is Beauty and the Beast continuing the streak of worthwhile remakes?
In revisiting this material, director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) had an upward battle from the start. Unlike many of Disney's classic films, Beauty and the Beast is, while derived from a fairy tale, almost ubiquitously Disney, with enough significant changes done to consider the animation a different story from the source material. Alice in Wonderland was based on Lewis Carroll's novel and the remake functioned as a quasi-sequel, introducing elements from the novel that weren't in the original animation. The Jungle Book not only shook up the structure of the animated feature, but reintroduced many of Kipling's elements that were not in the book while still remaining true to the spirit of Walt's last picture. Pete's Dragon was forgotten enough that they could entirely change it into a new story. Beauty and the Beast, though, is so beloved not as many chances or changes could be made.
That said, many of the changes that they do make are commendable. When people teach writing, they emphasize the need for character development. I never thought that character development was a huge issue in the original 1991 film, but the writers saw some holes that could be filled. Many of them are welcome, like changing Maurice from a somewhat crazy inventor, to a more tragic character, a man clearly affected by the (off-screen) death of his wife and, as a result, very protective of Belle--all beautifully portrayed by Kevin Kline (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, A Fish Called Wanda). They even make LeFou (Josh Gad, Frozen, The Book of Mormon) a more sympathetic character by giving him more to do and even a moral quandary that isn't addressed in the original film. I also love the Beast's new solo number, "Evermore," which rivals even the stage musical's "If I Can't Love Her" in my book. When they try to give reasons why the townspeople are unaware of a castle in the woods or try to make the enchantress a more involved character, though, it is more unnecessary.
To build off of that, some changes seemed to function mainly as padding to stretch the runtime to two hours. For example, the new song "Days in the Sun" seemed a lesser and slower version of the animation's "Human Again" (which was added in the Special Edition), hinting at things that were never returned to, such as a glimpse of young Beast's past. In the end, the song felt unnecessary since what new information is revealed in it is revealed again through dialogue. There is also a scene where Belle and Beast are transported somewhere where more information is revealed. While the information in this scene is referenced to later in the film, it just seemed like five minutes that seemed, well, unnecessary--different for the sake of having a new sequence.
What keeps the movie afloat and thoroughly enjoyable, though, are the acting performances. It is a little off-putting at first, since Emma Watson (Harry Potter, Noah) and Dan Stevens's (Downton Abbey, Legion) interpretations are subtly but definitely different from their animated counterparts. While the animated Belle was different from her poor provincial town for her outgoing bookishness, Watson's Belle is entirely detached from her town and is more quietly different; I noticed more this time how Belle was different from her villagers, which I read was in large part due to Watson's influence. The Beast also is more witty and learned than his animated counterpart and also more tragic; his past is explained more, and Stevens portrays that well despite being rendered as a CGI character. Luke Evans (The Hobbit, Dracula Untold), though, steals the show as Gaston alongside Josh Gad's LeFou, especially in his showstopping number. The film is worth seeing at least once just to see him! The A-list stars portraying the transformed servants, such as Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), and Stanley Tucci (new character Maestro Cadenza), seemed mostly wasted. Though their voice acting is fine, some of them evidently came to set for the single shoot day for the end scene and mailed in their performances. For those who didn't, though, like the always lovely Thompson, it feels like they were wasted as a mildly off-putting CGI character (I didn't have too many gripes with the designs, but I know several of the people I saw the movie with did). It is the nature of the story, though, so I can't really knock it for that.
To answer the question we began with, Beauty and the Beast is a good remake, though its flaws, like a padded runtime and a silly execution of the ending, keep it from being great. That said, certain changes improve and positively develop the story and the acting performances keep things enjoyable even in the film's more boring sections ("Days in the Sun," for one). Unless you are positively against Disney's recent trend of remaking its animated films, I would say give Beauty and the Beast a chance, at least on home video. It's a good-looking, mostly well-directed, and usually fun return to the tale as old as time. 3 out of 5 stars.
Did you see Beauty and the Beast? What do you think of Disney's live-action trend? Whatever you have to say about me or the movies, comment below!