Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty and the Beast

© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Over the past few years, Walt Disney Studios has found financial success in remaking a slew of their animated classics as live-action fare. The results have been relatively mixed, with films like The Jungle Book and Pete's Dragon meeting critical praise while endeavors such as Maleficent and the Alice in Wonderland franchise have been relatively panned. The most recent attempt at breathing new life into an animated classic hit theaters this past weekend in the form of Beauty and the Beast

The film opens with Belle (Emma Watson), a beautiful and learned outcast in a small French village, who dreams to leave her quiet life behind in the search for adventure. When her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) is taken hostage by a mysterious beast in a hidden castle, she pleads with the Beast (Dan Stevens) and elects to live a life imprisoned in her father's stead. She initially attempts to escape the Beast's gruesome clutches, but as time begins to pass, she learns that he is a cursed figure with a heart of gold hidden deep beneath his rough exterior. As the two grow closer, Maurice returns home and informs the villagers of the creature's existence. A ravenous mob led by the villainous Gaston (Luke Evans) surges toward the castle in an attempt to murder the Beast and rescue Belle from his seemingly wicked grasp. 

Each one of us can make our own determinations about whether Disney should be remaking these animated classics, but the fact that none of these films has stuck a perfect landing should give pause to moviegoers. On one hand, Disney's remakes bring these age-old stories to a younger generation that has become accustomed to fast-paced, computer-generated blockbusters; kids of the twenty-first century simply may not have the patience for a classic two-dimensional cartoon. Those like myself, on the other hand, must sit idly by as these nostalgic stories from our own childhood continue to be rehashed and recreated time and again, and while none of these attempts have been absolute bombs, they all pale in comparison with their animated counterparts. Unfortunately, this new rendition of Beauty and the Beast could not break that cycle. 

Let's start with a little bit of history. The animated Beauty and the Beast was the last of the Disney animated films to feature a cast predominantly drawn from the stages of Broadway. As a result, the musical atmosphere of that film works every step of the way as we know that the women and men behind the characters truly hold the talent and vocal chops to pull off these performances. With this new iteration, however, some of the principal cast seems to have been chosen for name recognition rather than necessary talent. I had my reservations about the cast going into the film, yet little did I know that the one person I assumed would do well would prove to be the film's faltering point. I don't know of anyone who would readily compare Emma Watson to Paige O'Hara, but considering the circumstances of the remake, I believe it has to be done. This new film doesn't take long to showcase the immense disparity between O'Hara's talent and Watson's seeming lack thereof. Emma proves serviceable in her acting moments, but as musical's central protagonist should not be resigned to offering an auto-tuned performance. This is a glaring miscast that will surely rekindle the recent discussion about casting for name recognition rather than for inherent ability. 

Watson aside, the rest of the cast performed admirably. The underrated Dan Stevens plays the titular Beast well but is certainly aided by a motion capture performance and CGI retrofitting. Josh Gad, who seemed like the most solid casting decision as the bumbling LeFou, provided a few good laughs early but ultimately seemed to overstay his welcome and suffered from a loosely thrown together character arc meant to make him redeemable. The true standout of the film has to be Luke Evans, whose casting was initially the most worrisome to me as my only recognition of him stems from his villainous turn in Fast & Furious 6. He took the Gaston character and crafted a performance that echoes his animated counterpart while allowing for just a little bit more sleaziness. He even nails his limited singing moments, so a true round of applause for him. We also get some decent performances from the likes of Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, and the aforementioned Kline; still, the rest of this ensemble could not hide the fact that the film's lead simply couldn't keep up. 

I have already discussed some of the film's music as it pertains to the vocal performances of the actors, but it's worth mentioning that Alan Menken came back to recreate the score he crafted over twenty-five years ago. The orchestral score still flows as beautifully as it did in 1991, and the cast follows it well enough with those aforementioned exceptions. Menken also added a few new songs to the mix, but I myself was left wondering throughout whether they came from the Broadway production (which I have not seen). I have been told since watching this film that these unfamiliar songs were, in fact, original compositions, but it did add some confusion in deciphering this new music when so much of this movie was resting on its nostalgic roots. 

For the most part, the film follows the same basic storyline and plot structure that its predecessor set forth. The animated version finishes in just under ninety minutes whereas this new version pushes just past the two hour mark, and honestly, it feels a bit bloated at times. As can be imagined, little bits were added to expand the storyline here and there. Certain aspects of these additions benefit this new version as we get more in-depth backstories into some of our principal characters that the much-shorter animated classic simply isn't able to give. Our two leads receive complementary backstories that serve to bring them even closer together. The also offers some pressing questions many have had since 1991 (i.e., why don't the villagers know about this gigantic castle a mere nightly walk away?).

Still, a few moments falter. The aforementioned addition to LeFou's instrumentality to the plot ultimately falls on deaf ears. Much hullabaloo has been made about certain revelations surrounding the character's sexual orientation, but the overall process of presenting LeFou's arc does not give the character nor that reveal any true justice. My biggest gripe with the film as a whole, however, stems from the iconic finale; in this new version, the ending has been tampered every so slightly but in such a way that it changes the very outlook of those climactic moments and very nearly negates the importance of a central plot device. As a result, the breath has been taken from the romantic power of those final moments.

In regards to the Disney live-action remakes, the jury may still be out, but Beauty and the Beast has helped push me towards my own verdict. While this film is nowhere near the worst of the bunch, it certainly stands as the most disappointing. The 1991 animated classic stands as a true masterpiece and holds its place in history as the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. The brilliance of that film lies far beyond its nostalgic power; it simply proves to be a beautiful cinematic endeavor that stands the test of time. I very much wanted to conduct this review in a void without having to compare it to the original, but such is the nature of Beauty and the Beast considering the well from which they draw. All that said, I may be in the vast minority with my criticisms and opinions: the audience in my screening gave the film a rousing ovation as the credits began roll while I quietly wondered what they had seen that I did not.