Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast
Release Date: March 17th, 2017
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Directed by: Bill Condon
Music & Lyrics: Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, Tim Rice
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Beauty and the Beast originally premiered in 1991, wowing both audiences and critics with its outstanding music and expressive hand-drawn animation (including some of the earliest use of CGI in an animated film). It won two Oscars (one for music composition, the other for best song) and was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It was the third movie in the "Disney Renaissance" that began with The Little Mermaid, and the second one that could be considered a critical and financial success. Sure, Aladdin and The Lion King made more money at the box office afterwards, but they came off of the boost that Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid produced.
I'd rank Beauty and the Beast as one of the most important and influential animated musicals of all time. It's not my all-time favorite (that honor currently goes to Moana or Hunchback of Notre Dame), but the 1994 stage musical holds a special place in my heart. Beauty and the Beast was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway, and it has stuck with me ever since. Seeing it was a transformative experience for me, and I know the exact scene where it happened: End of Act I, when I first heard Terrence Mann sing "If I Can't Love Her." It was such a powerful, emotional, and moving piece and unlike anything my young mind had heard before, and to this day it stands out as one of my favorite songs.
26 years later, Beauty and the Beast has fallen prey to Disney's newest plan to keep their older properties in the public consciousness. For a few years now, Disney has been creating live-action remakes of their classic animated films, and the results have been mixed. There's definitely a "house style" to these films, which are visually dark and heavy on unconvincing CGI. Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and the Maleficent film were, in my opinions, unmitigated disasters. Because of them, I skipped out on the Cinderella remake (which I heard wasn't actually terrible), but I did catch The Jungle Book, which was smartly directed by Jon Favreau and probably what landed him the gig helming the upcoming The Lion King remake. (The Jungle Book also made it onto some of our Top Movies of 2016 list.) There's already buzz on more upcoming live-action adaptations, such as Mulan and Aladdin. Are these necessary? No. Are people clamoring for these? I don't think so. Are we getting them anyway? Yes, so might as well get ready.
Enter Beauty and the Beast. I was not particularly excited for this one, but I was interested on what they were going to do. My wife Anita, however, was super stoked. This is one of her absolute favorite Disney films, and I know Belle is the favorite princess for a lot of my generation who grew up with these films.
The film follows the original movie in plot with some minor differences and digressions. Four new songs were written just for the movie, and small additions or explanations help explain past inconsistencies or plot holes. For instance, we are shown the Beast's decadence, greed, and vanity on full display in the opening before he is cursed. We learn why nobody seems to remember there being a giant castle with a Prince in it not far from this small little village. Belle's father is now a tinkerer, creating elaborate clockwork music boxes instead of giant inventions. Gaston is a war hero instead of just a hunter (but still a huge creep). And the town bookseller has been replaced by a local priest who keeps a meager shelf of books for Belle to read, which actually makes a lot more sense (why would a town that hates books have a bookseller?). These additions are pretty smart, and they avoid the pitfall of over-explanation given in films like Alice in Wonderland (we don't learn the Beast's actual name, or the name of the little provincial town, for example).
Despite my misgivings and the poor impressions that the trailers and images had given, this film quickly endeared itself to me. By the time it was over, I was surprised by how much I was enjoying it (and the people I saw it with just loved it). There is an impressive collection of talent in this movie, but I want to hit on a few bright spots. Emma Thompson as Mrs Potts is fantastic, and while she's no Angela Lansbury (and who is?), she does a superb job. Kevin Kline as Belle's father Maurice is probably the biggest surprise in this film. He gets a beautiful, short, and quiet solo song near the beginning ("How Does A Moment Last Forever?" with a cover by Celine Dion during the credits), and he gets a lot of well-deserved extended screen time compared to his animated counterpart. Dan Stevens's Beast/Prince is a more refined monster, with an altered voice giving him a constant rumbling basso voice and guttural growl. Like Kline, Stevens gets one of the better new songs, a fantastic piece called "Evermore" that fits perfectly into the film, and is probably my favorite thing to come out of it. (I may or may not be listening to it over and over again on YouTube. And don't let anyone fool you: Steven's version is much better than the Josh Groban rendition that plays during the credits.)
But the absolute greatest thing to come from this film are Luke Evans and Josh Gad as Gaston and LeFou. By the end of their introduction they had already started cracking me up, and the two are so natural in their performances that you want to see them more than the other principal characters. I was shocked to hear that Evans had some pipes on him (I didn't realize that he used to perform in London's West End), and while no one can compare to the original film's Richard White, Evans puts his own brash, greasy spin on the character, making him appear deceptively heroic if not more than a little unhinged. Gad's LeFou is still sycophantic, but is given a lot more dignity and personality than the original. Between the two of them, the "Gaston" song is the definitive showstopper.
One of the best additions to the film is that the romance between Belle and the Beast blossoms through multiple scenes. Unlike the animated film, which quickly went through the paces and gave us a montage through song, the connection between the two here is given time and depth. The Beast makes an effort to bond with Belle through books, leading to some humorous, touching, and even heartbreaking moments. It culminates in a fantastic "wham line" right after the "Beauty and the Beast" ballroom scene that reminds the audience at the right time that, yes, Belle is still technically a prisoner.
A lot of this movie works, and I didn't even cover the gorgeous scenery and costuming. But this movie is also far from perfect, and its failings keep it from being truly great. If you watch the other live-action adaptions, such as The Jungle Book, there might be call-backs or references to the original but at least they try to stand out as their own story. Beauty and the Beast is not like that.
Case in point, "Be Our Guest." For all intents and purposes, this should be the film's centerpiece and shining moment. But the scene feels so overbearing and overblown that it feels tacked on and tasteless. The scene is so gaudy and self-referential that it's barely watchable. Some movies have subtle, figurative winks to the audience; this scene has an actual, literal wink from Mrs Potts. Ewan McGregor tries so hard as Lumière, bless his heart, but he lacks Jerry Orbach's charm and comes off hammy. It just doesn't fit. Speaking of which, how did Jerry Orbach go throughout that entire movie as the only actor using a French accent, and without sounding ridiculous? McGregor's accent, by comparison, is clumsy, obvious, and borderline offensive.
What doesn't help is the egregious amounts of CGI needed to turn these creepy candles, clocks, and credenzas into living, moving characters. And it's not very good CGI. Even the Beast looks fake and out of place in some scenes. Sadly, none of the CGI in these live-action Disney movies looks good, and I'd expect with the amount of money behind them, they'd at least hire a studio that could deliver some high quality motion-capture and animation.
None of these criticisms come close to the truly unforgivable choice that pulls this movie down, and that is the casting of Emma Watson as Belle. I want to make this incredibly clear. Emma Watson cannot sing. She cannot sing when she's in France, she cannot sing when at a dance. She cannot sing when there's a feast, she cannot sing when with a Beast. She can barely carry a tune, and you can hear the autotuning in several songs (less obvious in the film, very obvious on the soundtrack). Also, you should not have background characters with better voices than the leads. This would be a little more forgivable if Watson was some great actress, but she's not. She has her moments, sure, but she has no stage presence. You forget she's there on screen sometimes. She just disappears! There's a scene where she's riding a horse, and I think I was focusing more on the horse. There's an entire universe of talented young actresses that could have headlined this movie. Why Emma Watson?
I brought up the Broadway musical earlier because I'm not sure why they wrote four new songs for this movie and didn't use any of the fantastic pieces from the stage version. "Evermore" is beautiful, but it's no "If I Can't Love Her." Why use the new "Days in the Sun" when they already had "Human Again"? And what about the song "Home" that everyone loved from the musical? I don't hold this against the movie, but it seems like a missed opportunity to bring this music to a wider audience.
In the end, I did enjoy this adaption, and I think it's decent. It's just a shame that it has some pretty obvious flaws that keep it from greatness. However, I think there's a lot to offer for old fans and new younger audiences alike. I'm definitely thinking of seeing it again in theaters if possible, which says a lot.