Beauty and the Beast
Bill Condon (2017)
The tale may not really be as old as time, but it’s at least as old as 1991, when in the midst of the Disney Renaissance, the studio gave us a musical follow-up to The Little Mermaid that featured a heroine who had her own ideas and her own agency and wasn’t about to wait around for her prince to come. It was the guy, trapped in the form of a beast, who had to wait for her to save him from his bestial side. The film struck a chord twenty-six years ago, and fittingly became the first animated feature film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It went on to become a hit Broadway musical, capitalizing on the Oscar-winning movie score composed by Alan Menken and songs by Menken and the late Howard Ashman.
As of this past weekend, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has embarked upon its third life, this time as a live-action film that promises to be its most lucrative life of all, having pulled in some $175 million this past week, out-performing all of star Emma Watson’s previous films in its opening weekend—and in case you don’t grasp the significance of that, remember that her previous films included all of the incredibly successful movies in the Harry Potter franchise. The current film is, like 2015’s Cinderella, essentially a reshooting of the original animated film with (big-name) live actors. Cinderella, though sticking very close to the classic Disney cartoon, was campy enough not to take itself too seriously, and therefore was a whole lot of fun, while Beauty and the Beast is weighed down by its own seriousness much of the time. The rare exceptions come from Luke Evans (The Hobbit’s Bard) as Gaston and Josh Gad (from Broadway’s Book of Mormon) as Gaston’s sidekick Lefou. The duo’s rendition of the song “Gaston” is the most entertaining musical moment of the film, but it often seems that they are in a different—and more fun—movie from everyone else.
Nor does Beauty and the Beast measure up to last year’s live-action remake of Disney’s The Jungle Book. That film, far less reliant on music, took the general narrative of Disney’s movie, made passing allusions to iconic moments from the animated film, but rethought the plot, turning the film into a fresh new version of Kipling’s original tale. Beauty and the Beast follows its original almost slavishly, but adds some new scenes and new music (making the live-action version some forty minutes longer than the cartoon). These additions generally involve the creation of some backstory for Belle (Watson) and her father Maurice (played with solemn noncartoonishness by Kevin Kline), ostensibly to clarify their motivations, I suppose. But in fact these amplifications are unnecessary and, without exception, quite dull. There is a scene where, through some magic mirror trick, the Beast is able to transport Belle to Paris, where she lived with her parents as a baby, and where she learns exactly how her mother died. I suppose this allows us to appreciate why old Dad is so sad, and why he treasures his daughter so much, but we already knew that his wife had died and Belle was all he had left, so we already understood all that without this scene, which really isn’t all that interesting and takes us away from the main plot of the tale. There’s also some incongruity here: If the Beast can transport Belle and himself through time and space, why doesn’t he do that later in the story, when it could prove a really handy skill?
As for the new songs, added by Mencken and Tim Rice (best-known as Andrew Lloyd Weber’s collaborator on Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), there are three: “Days in the Sun” (providing some backstory for the object-characters in the Beast’s castle); “How Does a Moment Last Forever,” concerning the backstory of Belle and Maurice; and “Evermore,” sung by the Beast when he finds himself in love with Belle. But these new numbers pale before the original songs, and not one of them is memorable in the least. Why did Disney think it was a good idea to add them? Don’t get me wrong, I only want to know.
To recap the plot briefly, in case you’re one of the three people in the civilized world unfamiliar with it, it begins with a great nobleman being turned into a beast for his arrogance, and all of his servants transformed into household furniture, as part of the curse. In a nearby village, a beautiful and independent-minded young woman named Belle (that’s French for “Beauty,” in case you need to be reminded) dotes on her inventor-toymaker father Maurice while fighting off the advances of a local egotistical suitor named Gaston. Mocked for her bookishness and her intelligence, she longs to leave behind “this provincial life.” Maurice is imprisoned by the Beast for picking a rose, and Belle offers to take his place. While imprisoned in the Beast’s castle, she befriends the anthropomorphic household furnishings and learns to look beyond the Beast’s outer form to fall in love with the human soul within. Meanwhile Gaston plots to put Maurice away in an asylum, “rescue” Belle and slay the Beast. It’s a fairy tale, so you know how it ends.
The story, of course, is a timeless romance with a significant lesson that will stir people in whatever form it takes. My wife, who was perhaps the only person in America still living who has never seen the original Disney animated film, was caught up with the story, seeing it for the first time in this version. But so many things fall flat in this remake that it will be hard to form any real affection for it. Unlike the cartoon version of Lumiere the candelabra, Cogsworth the walking clock, the teapot “Mrs. Potts,” and God help us a wardrobe and a harpsichord (which have no true face at all), these live-action blocks of furniture are too real to be convincing as metamorphosed humans. As cartoons, Lumiere and Mrs. Potts had all the expressions of real people, but in this case the considerable skills of Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, and especially Audra McDonald as the wardrobe, are completely wasted on objects that never really come to life. And this turns the most memorable musical number of the animated film, “Be Our Guest,” into an unremarkable display of computer graphics rather than the stunning Busby-Berkeley style chorus number it is in the original.
To a lesser extent this is true of the Beast as well. Dan Stevens (late of Downton Abbey) does the best he can with the role, occasionally getting us to feel empathy with the creature, but as a CGI/motion-capture creation he has little opportunity to show emotion, or to form any chemistry with Watson, who we must imagine was shooting her scenes with a lover who was only there in her imagination. Watson does her best as well, but like her onscreen father Kline, is so dead serious all the time that most of the fun is squeezed out of the story.
One thing that isn’t a problem in the film is the much ballyhooed “gay moment” that director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls) mentioned in a press interview prior to the film’s release, saying that it was there as an homage to lyricist Ashman, who died of AIDS just before the animated film’s release in 1991. That revelation caused some Muslim countries to ban the film, and fringe “Christian” extremists to threaten boycotts. Obviously, those threats have not hurt the box office. But the “gay moment” is so subtle that it is barely noticeable, and cannot possibly offend anyone who isn’t looking to be offended. Still, if you don’t want your children “exposed,” keep them home and stay home yourself. With the money the film is making, nobody is going to miss you.
Two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one. See the film if you want to—you probably will anyway. But I think you’d be better off to stay home and watch the original on DVD.