When Disney first started remaking their cartoon classics, there was a certain logical approach to them. Maleficent took the 1959 Sleeping Beauty story that everyone has heard a thousand times before and completely recontextualized it, telling the tale from the view of the villain and making her seem, well, not quite so villainous. Cinderella was a film from 1950 which surprisingly enough doesn’t focus on its titular character all that much. Seriously, go watch it again…the main characters of that movie are the mice. The 2015 reboot refocused and modernized the story and was largely successful. Last year’s The Jungle Book remake was based on a film from the 60s. Again, Disney modernized the tale and skirted around some of the racist colonial issues that the source material presented. And now we have Beauty and the Beast, the 1991 smash hit that holds the title of the first animated film nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. How could Disney possibly improve on the 26 years young film considered by many to be the best in the “Disney Renaissance?” Turns out, they can’t. Director Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is well-made and often beautiful, but cannot overcome the looming shadow of the Beast that came before.
Like its ‘91 forebear, Beauty and the Beast centers on Belle, played admirably by Emma Watson. Belle is the town weirdo because she has the audacity to read books and dream of a life more exciting than watching an entire town spontaneously break into songs about bread. Her dreams are answered when her father stumbles upon an old decrepit castle and is taken prisoner by the angry Beast (Dan Stevens) that lives there. Negotiating the world’s worst prisoner swap, Belle finds herself trapped in the castle for the rest of her life. Fortunately, her closet can talk to her so she’ll never be lonely. All the familiar beats of the story are here: The Enchantress’s spell, the rose, and the cast of talking dishware. Unlike The Jungle Book, this movie fully embraces its musical roots; every single classic song is redone here. While it’s not exactly a shot for shot remake of the cartoon, it’s about as close as you can get.
The parts of the movie that were added are seemingly only there to patch over some of the problems and plot holes with the original, a thing I never realized anyone actually cared about. If you always wondered exactly how far Beast’s castle was from Belle’s town and why the townspeople didn’t notice when a giant castle they were assumingly paying taxes to just disappeared, the movie explains it for you. If you wondered why the servants were punished just because their master was a dick, it’s got something for you there. Where is Belle’s mother? Beast’s parents? Condon’s Beast shows you that too. There’s also a couple of added songs, but they’re completely tacked on and don’t work at all, at least compared to the mastery of the originals. I’m being really snarky in this review, but that’s only because so much of this film just feels so unnecessary. Disney isn’t treading any new ground here, they’re just filling insignificant potholes on an old, but perfectly functional road.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its good qualities. Bill Condon absolutely succeeds at bringing the cartoon to life in a believable way. The set designs and costumes all look wonderful and the musical numbers, while kind of stage-y at times, are a spectacle all to themselves. The camera loves to spin around these iconic moments, cutting rarely and making us part of the whirlwind of color, music, and fun. What Condon does with “Be Our Guest” is almost worth the price of admission by itself. Ironic, considering it’s almost entirely CGI.
Watson’s performance as Belle is good, but it’s obvious from the first note that she’s not the best singer in the world. It doesn’t diminish the emotional resonance of her performance, but you can tell the songs were altered slightly to ensure that they never reached notes Watson was incapable of hitting. Dan Stevens does great work as Beast, as well. The CGI work is impressive, but you can still Stevens behind the graphics and voice modulation. FX’s Legion has shown the actor’s ability to switch between menacing, heartfelt, and downright goofy, and it’s clear he’s channeling some of that here. The various and diverse group of actors who lend their voices to the film’s array of furniture and flatware all succeed to varying degrees. Ewan McGregor’s Lumiere stands out to me, not because his French accent is any good (it isn’t, but neither was the original), but rather because he manages to convey a sense of pathos for the character that never existed before. You’re invested in the stakes of the movie, not just because of Belle and Beast’s blooming love, but you want this poor little candlestick to end up less candlesticky.
The standouts of the film, however, are Luke Evans’s Gaston and Josh Gad’s LeFou. Gaston is seemingly the role that Evans was born to play. He inhabits the character so completely that I was almost awestruck as I ate up every moment of his big musical number. Gaston is not merely a meathead evil-doer as he was in the ‘91 film. Rather, Evans has instilled in him some genuine human qualities. He’s a man returned from the war trying to find his place in the world. He loves to hunt and appreciates a challenge which he applies both to game and to women–a beat that serves to actually explain why he’d be interested in the town weirdo to begin with. He’s most certainly a bad guy, and the film doesn’t shade its intention to paint him as the foil to Beast, but at least his evil comes from a believable place. As for LeFou, the original film treated the character as a glorified henchman who just carried out the deeds of his master. Thankfully, Gad has more to do here, serving not only as a friend and confidant of Gaston but seemingly the only person that’s able to talk the troubled hunter down when he gets into one of his fits of rage. I’ve been pretty mixed about Josh Gad in the past, but I found him absolutely affecting here. A man torn between his loyalty to his friend and the right thing to do, Gad manages to convey a sense of sympathy for the underappreciated LeFou. Especially after showing us just how loyal and loving he is.
Much has been made of Bill Condon’s boast of a truly unique and openly gay moment in the film, but this was entirely overblown. The film hints that LeFou’s love for Gaston is something more than just friendship, and it tosses little visual gags as to the character’s true sexual orientation, but an openly gay character this isn’t. One would hope that in 2017 we had moved past all this, but even observing just how big of a deal what is here became shows how much more we have to go.
Beauty and the Beast is a film torn between two ideas. It both wants to break some new ground while still feeling completely beholden to hit all the memorable beats of its forbear. When it’s hitting those classic moments, it works like gangbusters, but each time it attempts to stray off the beaten path it quickly sprints back to the safe ground of the road more traveled. All of this just leads you to wonder why? Why, besides money, was this movie made? That Beauty and the Beast doesn’t seem to have an answer might be its worst sin of all.