Beauty and the Beast*** / *****
Directed by: Bill Condon.
Written by: Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos.
Starring: Emma Watson (Belle), Dan Stevens (Beast), Luke Evans (Gaston), Josh Gad (LeFou), Kevin Kline (Maurice), Hattie Morahan (Agathe / Enchantress), Haydn Gwynne (Cothilde), Gerard Horan (Jean the Potter), Ray Fearon (Père Robert), Ewan McGregor (Lumière), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Nathan Mack (Chip), Audra McDonald (Madame Garderobe), Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette).
Disney is in the process of doing live action remakes of pretty much all of their back catalogue – which is undeniably little more than a cynical money making ploy – a way to cash in on their existing properties instead of coming up with original ideas (a giant corporation, doing something purely for monetary giant? Try and hide your shock). But while that is true, that doesn’t mean that these movies have to be bad necessarily – last year their Jungle Book remake was a complete delight, and Pete’s Dragon was even better (even if it didn’t get the attention it deserved). Maleficent offered an alternate version of Sleeping Beauty (certainly preferable to the other story, which is painfully dull). The key to making these films truly good is to have a different point-of-view – something that sets it apart from the animated classic we all know and love. Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, unfortunately, doesn’t really have that. Like Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, it is too faithful to the original version, which makes the film a little harder to defend. Still, though, I have to say that even if this Beauty and the Beast is merely a cover version to the 1991 animated masterwork – and one that feels the need to go on much longer than original – it is a very good cover version. The songs we know and love are all there, and (with one exception) are mainly a delight. The performances work – and in a few cases flesh out what were very broad characters in the original. And from the standpoint of costumes, production design, cinematography and visual effects, it really is hard to find fault. More important still – it satisfies its target audience – specifically, my five year old who calls the animated original her favorite movie (trust me, I’ve watched it about 12 dozens in the past year – including two days after seeing this one). Despite the two plus hour runtime time, she sat in rapt attention the whole time, and loved every minute. It’s hard to argue with that.
We all know the story by now – Belle (Emma Watson) is a beautiful young girl, living in the French countryside, who wants more than her small town can offer – especially more than Gaston (Luke Evans), the town’s boorish resident hunk, who is determined to marry her. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) heads off to market, gets lost in the woods, and comes across an enchanted castle – inhabited by talking furniture and a Beast – the beast was once a prince, who through his own selfish action got himself – and his servants (for some reason) cursed. Now, unless he can learn to love – and get someone to love him – he will be cursed forever. Belle shows up to save her father, ends up taking his place, and – of course – romance ensues.
This story has already inspired two cinematic masterpieces – Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version, and Disney’s 1991 version (at the risk of having my cinephile’s card revoked, I’ll say I liked the 1991 version more). This new version, pretty much copies the animated version scene for scene, note for note, but adds some (mainly unnecessary) detours along the way. For the most part, all your favorite songs from the original are back – and they are delightful – my favorite remains “Gaston” – performed with appropriate aplomb by Evans (who surprised me by giving the best performance in the film) and Josh Gad as his sidekick Le Fou (the much ballyhooed “gay moment” in the film is so fleeting by the way, its barely there – I’d feel pretty stupid if I was that woman who cancelled my family’s trip to Disneyland – losing thousands of dollars in the process – because of Disney pushing a gay agenda – then again,. I’d feel stupid if I was that woman anyway). The other major highlight, of course, is Beauty and the Beast itself – a wonderfully romantic dance number. The one original song that fell flat for me was Be Our Guest – which was so over busy and hectic, it felt like an outtake from Moulin Rouge (and not in a good way). Apparently, there were also some new songs in the film as well – but two days later, I cannot remember a single one, so you judge for yourself what that means about them.
The film definitely has it flaws – it does go on too long, it does have too much unnecessary backstory, and it does have a weird rhythm to it that doesn’t quite work. All the actors playing the various talking furniture dial everything up to 11 – and while that’s okay when they’re say talking clocks or candlesticks, it becomes a distraction when they’re real people.
But the film gets the main things right. Emma Watson makes for an appropriately spunky heroine – and has a lovely singing voice to boot. Dan Stevens – currently doing great work in Legion – is fine under layers of CGI as the Beast, and that’s all he has to be. I’ve already sung Evans praises – and will say that Gad knows his job as a Disney sidekick well. The surprise is Kevin Kline, who makes the most out of Maurice’s additional screen time. As a visual spectacle, it’s tough to argue with the work on display here.
A part of me knows that the cynic inside me is always going to hate on a film like Beauty and the Beast. It is undeniably, for Disney, an act of cynical money grabbing – in this case more than most, since they have essentially pulled a Gus Van Sant remakes Psycho here. I also know that the film was not made with 35 year old cynics in mind. If that’s you, stay away. If however, like me, you have a 5 year old daughter at home, suck it up, and take her. To her, witnessing this movie is to witness movie magic – and that’s worth it, even if the film is flawed.