For some people, Disney is a religion. For this audience, a live action remake of an animated classic like Beauty and the Beast – the first animated film nominated for Best Picture, and don’t you forget it – is either a new sacrament …or sacrilege.
Me, I’m an agnostic when it comes to the Mickey Mouse movement. Like pretty much everyone else born in the ‘80s, I have a soft spot for the original Beauty and the Beast, but I don’t regard it as scripture. So when it comes to Bill Condon’s adaptation of the original film – and, let’s be clear, this is less an adaptation of the original French folk tale than a reshooting of the 1991 movie – I’m not likely to be outraged at its diversions nor overjoyed at its fidelity. (In contrast with a friend who broke out in apoplectic rage at the omission of a line from one of the restaged songs.)
But it does seem difficult, perhaps even impossible, to discuss Disney’s latest strip-mining of their back catalogue outside of the context of the original animated musical. While I prefer to assess a film on its own merits, trying to assess Beauty and the Beast (the new one) without talking about Beauty and the Beast (the old-ish one) is patently folly. It’s not just the musical numbers being trotted out again; so much of this film’s runtime is dominated by dialogue and images unashamedly cribbed from a quarter-century prior.
Let’s begin, then, with all the stuff that’s endured in retelling this tale as old as time. Belle (Emma Watson) still laments her “provincial life” in a charming if close-minded town in the French countryside. She’s still courted by the narcissistic, pugilistic Gaston (Luke Evans; the clear standout of the cast). Meanwhile, the Beast (Dan Stevens) is still imprisoned in a brutish body and a lonely castle along with his servants. The servants are, of course, teapots (Emma Thompson) and candelabras (Ewan McGregor) and clocks (Ian McKellen) and the like – while their CGI reinterpretation doesn’t play well in stills, it suits the ornate craftsmanship that Condon and his production crew have opted for over the cartoonish approach of the 1991 film. (“Cartoonish” isn’t intended as a pejorative given it was a cartoon.)
You’re right to be sceptical about redoing the best bits of the original: specifically, the songs. I may be in a minority here, but I found Condon’s restaging of the numbers as good, and sometimes even better, than the original. They have all the humour, the energy, the vibrancy that you’d hope for, and they’re not afraid to take inspiration from the original animation by sidestepping into something more expressive than you’d expect from live action. The (fabulously expensive) “Be Our Guest” sequence, for instance, does not hold back at all. My favourite, though, had to be the energetic rendition of “Gaston”, buoyed by the chemistry of Evans and Josh Gad (whose mugging approach to comedy I rarely like, but suits this sequence perfectly).
There’s more to the film than repeating what worked 25 years ago. Not much more, to be sure, but the original’s tight 90 minute runtime has blown out to over two hours. In part, that’s a consequence of the difference in fluidity between the two modes of filmmaking (animated montages and establishing shots tend to be far more efficient), but largely it’s because of a handful of additions to the familiar storyline.
The substance of these changes is primarily to align the film’s narrative more closely with the brands of its principal actors, especially Disney and Emma Watson. Emma Watson’s presence allows Disney to exploit feminist themes in its marketing, while Watson’s career is furthered by her participation, naturally. So Belle’s love for reading – and the resistance of the townspeople to her literacy – is played up, which aligns neatly with Watson’s promotion of reading and books and such.
All this is somewhat complicated by the original text, which uses an enraged outburst by the Beast to precipitate an ill-defined romance. The midsection of the film unquestionably invites expansion, and scenes of Belle and the Beast discussing literature while walking through his gardens are effective in of themselves while smoothing over any problematic elements of the preceding adaptation. The CGI used to Beast-ify Stevens helps here as well; it seems to soften as the film progresses, emphasising the empathetic humanity beneath the fur and fangs.
Less effective is, well, pretty much every other addition to the screenplay. The decision to flesh out both the Beast and Belle’s backstories – basically, Belle’s mum had the plague, Beast’s dad was a jerk – makes for flabby storytelling. Especially when Belle and the Beast teleport to Paris for some reason! These moments are paired with new songs that are generously described as mediocre; they hit the high notes but are too indebted to pointed character development to have any of the personality of the original film’s songs.
The tack taken with Gaston is similarly ill-considered. His boorish behaviour is swiftly extrapolated into outright murderous deception, which achieves Disney’s traditional moral clarity – good vs bad – at the expense of any kind of nuance. Thankfully, Evans’ sneering work is strong enough to paper over these mistakes. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same of Watson, who is just …maybe …not a good actress? Auto-tuned or not, she sells the songs, but you can’t help but picture reading cue cards as she delivers the bulk of her dialogue. The teacup has more personality.
For Disney fanatics, these issues will either be ignored entirely or extrapolated into disaster. For me, I was happy enough to disregard such issues of adaptation when the overall package – the songs, the costumes, the set design, the action – was so uplifting. It’s not a perfect film by any means but, then, I think that’s true of most Disney films.