“Beauty and the Beast” (2017): Ever Just The Same, Rarely A Surprise

Beauty and the Beast is a rather odd… beast. To say the least. A live action remake of a 1991 animated film that dazzled audiences over a quarter of a century ago and still beloved to this day. The first Best Picture-nominated animated film still has such a rousing sense of scale, poise and charm despite its on paper premise of a young woman falling in love with a man-turned-monster who kidnnaped her father. A chemistry developed between the two characters that was elevated by a mutual disgust that turned into two people realizing their better natures. So, how could one take what seems like a perfect film and adapt it for modern audiences who still love the original?

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Well… they try. One really can’t knock director Bill Condon, the production design team, the costume designers or really any of the actors for not attempting to do justice to this story. Earnestness and production value ooze out of every frame from Beauty and the Beast. The gothic architecture of The Beast’s castle gives so much ominous empty glory that builds such appropriate atmosphere for our seclusionary male lead. Belle’s French village contrasts so well by having a claustrophobic feel that seems to box her potential in. The elaborate designs of the various object sidekicks even have a wonderful mix of practical use for their intended purpose and facial structure that made them both elaborately decorative and expressive. Bill Condon’s direction takes advantage of these sets most during the most elaborate musical numbers like “Belle” or “Gaston”, showing off a love of spectacle numbers from the olden heydays of MGM.

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Despite the magnificent work on that visual level, some of the more character focused attempts at adapting the 1991 film tend to fall short. Namely, with the titular leads of Beauty and the Beast. Emma Watson as Belle has glimpses of further conveying the independent spirit necessary for the character. This new version even attempts to add new details of her proficiency with the tools her father (played with the usual effortless charm that Kevin Kline tends to provide) uses to invent things and a more active role in the climax to make her a bit less passive. Yet, some of the essential key parts of the character aren’t given a chance to flourish. The main one that Watson deserves blame for lacking is singing ability. Whenever she sings Belle’s more iconic songs from the original as written by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman for the original Beauty and the Beast, the lack of vocal range is blatant. Watson just keeps one monotonous tone droning through each song. She can’t hit the highs or lows that original Belle voice actress Paige O’Hara was pitch perfect on. Which is distracting and disappointing given how crucial those songs often are to establishing Belle’s desires and passion. Watson does better with the new songs Menken and Tim Rice composed to fit her range, but those are incredibly forgettable and unnecessary songs that just seem overly repetitious of what we’ve learned from previous dialogue… or even songs.

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Of course, this story of girl-meets-beast has a crucial hairy second half to potentially balance things out. The Beast here is created through motion capture and CG… which often hits the uncanny valley. Dan Stevens‘ portrayal of the prince turned monster works best when he is at either his most beastly or more vulnerable extremes. Stevens’ body language comes through in a convincing fashion when he’s either lurking in the shadows ready to pounce or having a casual conversation with Belle while in a weakened state. There are glimpses of a chemistry between him and Watson that show potential to grow into a believable romance. Yet, the design and animation around him often struggles to catch up. With the original animated Beast, the amazing feat of taking the hideously designed monster and having Belle humble him into remembering his human side felt like more of an authentic transformation because of how inhuman he seemed by appearance alone. The design of this new Beast has smoother more human features, making for an awkward uncanny valley experience that’s also far less transformative once he does become human again. If anything, the attempts fit this unholy middle ground between monstrous and human that appeases neither side of the character. They can’t even capture the beauty inherent in Stevens’ gorgeous eyes. This Beast is more often stiff and lifeless, particularly during the flat attempt at recreating the iconic ballroom scene of the original Beauty and the Beast.

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The supporting cast tends to be a bit more consistent. Ewan McGregor captures the lively showmanship of candelabra Lumiere (“Very different from a candlestick!”) quite well, filling the role with as much exuberant life as the cleverly articulate animation can muster. Ian McKellan gives a fair shot at he pompous dignity of the punctual clock Cogsworth. Emma Thompson has the appropriate amount of gentile niceties that make her a solid Mrs. Potts. Even the new objects like Broadway maestro Audra McDonald as a refined singer turned narcoleptic wardrobe or Stanley Tucci as a flamboyant pianist turned piano get a few moments of genuine comedic relief. They handle the famous “Be Our Guest” number well, though the spectacle of it feels misplaced given the new set-up for Cogsworth, making it a joke without a punchline sort of problem. Their climactic attempts to save the castle from villagers also feels clunky, as Condon’s attempts at action direction there and during the various “running from wolves in the enchanted forest” scenes show his clear limitations as a director.

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However, the shining spots of this interpretation of Beauty and The Beast honestly are Luke Evans as the witless brute villain Gaston and Josh Gad as his conflicted sidekick LeFou. The former was particularly surprising for myself, given Evans hasn’t had the best track record. Yet, he finds the right mixture of authentic belief in every word he’s saying and relishing in the cartoonish behavior of the original subversion of the manly prince that the cartoon Gaston was. Gad has that same charm, while advancing something that was pretty obvious in the original cartoon: his massive obsession with Gaston. After all, LeFou starts the song titled after the man, so it’s only natural that there would be a textual one-sided love from this sidekick to his emotionally abusive compatriot. It’s rather explicit… and it’s honestly the most intriguing new element for this version. There’s room for Gad to be joyous without being stereotypical. Plus, his attempts to tame Gaston into being nicer serves as a comedic tragedy of a subversion to Belle and Beast’s similar story. The former based in failing to calm a man who loves nothing more than to kill vs the latter in digging out the calm that lies under a man with a fatal blow to his humanity.

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Yet, despite their best efforts, Beauty and the Beast still doesn’t add much new to justify it’s existence. Aside from the previously mentioned forgettable songs, more backstory is added to Belle and Beast’s pasts to attempt to flesh out their journies. Talk of Belle’s mother dying and Beast’s father being a brute that turned him evil try to fill in blanks for these characters being who they are. One a girl desperate to become a woman out in the world her father shunned her from for fear of her safety. The other a brutish man who is too wrapped up in his own self-pity to let others in. But we don’t need any of that new material to get that message across. Nor do we need further reveals about connections between the villagers and the objects in the house. Or to make the enchantress appear a few more times. It’s all just window dressing over repetition of what we’ve seen before. It just makes for a rather empty nostalgic exercise in “You Remember this from the original Beauty and the Beast, right?” rather than an adaptation that makes itself stand out like recent Disney remakes The Jungle Book or Pete’s Dragon.

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Still, it’s at least not a Maleficent level mess up of what the original was either. There’s a respect for the scale and majesty of the original that makes this feel more sincere than something like Maleficent. Yet, the tug and pull of this version to appease rabid Disney fans while carving something new for itself feels too one sided in the former rather than the latter. Those dips into new material are well meaning, but ultimately bland in execution. The older material is often well realized in live action, but without any kind of distinctive spin. Even a few of the more modern subversive jabs at idea of the inconsistent object personification or Belle preferring Beast over his human form are so throwaway and last minute. Ultimately, it’s a mediocre attempt to recreate something that’s already pretty perfect to wash the audience over in what they loved in the first place. So… why not just watch Beauty and the Beast instead?

Rating: 2 Out of 5 Non-Enchanted Objects

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