Even as somebody who has still yet to see the original 1991 Beauty and the Beast, something seems fishy to me about Bill Condon’s brand new flesh and blood version. From the very first scene where our arrogant prince (Dan Stevens) rejects the wrong witch and gets transformed into a beast something rings inauthentic. It is as if this movie murdered the original and is now wearing its skin, parading out in public as it tries to convince everybody that it’s still the person they remember. It’s all a bit scummy, really.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Belle (Emma Watson) is the black sheep bookworm of a small French village dreaming of bigger things. When her father (Kevin Kline) goes missing, she discovers they he’s been captured by the aforementioned beast and sacrifices herself so that he can return home. Under the care of the beast and his group of enchanted household applian – –
wait…you have heard this one? Ok, I’ll stop.
The lifeblood of Beauty and the Beast ultimately lies in whether or not the romance between Belle and her hairy liege ends up working. It’s a relationship that’s been so normalized by pop culture but on paper, it’s pretty strange stuff. That’s exactly how it comes across in this version, strange. The beast’s transition from rabid rage machine to kindly bookkeep feels entirely too rapid. We never see why Belle could think of him as any more than a friend and a reluctant one at that, considering that he, you know, kidnapped her. It certainly doesn’t help that Watson is as dull as dishwater here. While she’s certainly proven herself a more than capable actress in her post-Harry Potter career, she seems terrified to inject her Belle with any personality that isn’t written on the page. As such, she has little to no chemistry with Stevens, who only fares a little bit better. While he certainly has the screen presence and the deep, resonant voice that the beast requires, his performance gets buried under an atrocious CGI design that never feels the least bit intimidating. He looks like he’d be more at home in Land of the Lost than $160 million dollar movie.
Fortunately, the supporting cast is much stronger. Luke Evans is having the time of his life as the bravado fueled Gaston, who is only bolstered by genuinely hilarious interplay with Josh Gad’s LeFou. When these two are on screen, we see hints of the boisterous musical extravaganza this movie could have been if it wasn’t so concerned with being somber whenever Belle and the Beast are on screen. Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen are also quite a bit of fun as Cogsworth and Lumiere, even if McGregor is constantly fighting against an atrocious French accent. Although, it’s hard to fault him for trying, which is more than I can say for the rest of the cast. Seriously, if French actors are on the Hollywood blacklist, can we just set the next “French” musical in England?
Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) certainly knows his way around a musical. The numbers here are elaborately choreographed and well sung for the most part. Each song establishes its own unique aesthetic, from Gaston’s bouncy barroom to Be Our Guest’s Bollywood esque light-show. Condon’s camera captures most of the action in wide takes, even if some of the editing is a little fast. However, the pacing of the musical numbers is thrown off with the addition of four new songs, all of which are rather melancholy and bland.
Unfortunately for Condon, this may be the ugliest looking big budget movie on the market. The character design, in particular, is borderline terrifying at times. They possess none of the vibrance and charm of the original animated versions, proving that some characters just don’t translate to live action. Watching a real life candlestick with a face bounce around the screen is consistently off-putting, establishing a constant sense of disconnection from the characters even when the writing occasionally brings some charm out of them.
While Beauty and the Beast is slavishly devoted to the film it is trying to emulate, it still feels like a tonally confused mess. It bounces back and forth from a dour romance to an enjoyable romp and ultimately undercuts both. While there is certainly potential for these Disney live action remakes to be worthwhile, they’re going to need to veer more in the direction of Jon Favreau’s adaption of The Jungle Book. That film was bold enough to create its own version of the story while still recapturing the essence of the original. Meanwhile, Condon’s film is limply crafted and terrified of taking risks. Sure, Belle and the Beast go through the motions and dance in the ballroom at the end but if you’re looking for a reason to get them there, you’re out of luck. It’s a tale as trite as time.