‘Beauty and the Beast’ Review | Ceci n’est pas Belle
[Editor’s Note: The following review contains some spoilers for the remake of a 26-year-old classic based on a centuries-old fairy tale.]
Normally it would be hard to complain about a remake of a story that is, by the film’s own admission, “as old as time,” but Disney’s new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast makes it a lot easier. The original animated musical was propelled by beautiful animation, rich characters and fairy tale simplicity. The live-action version suffers from awkward animation, confusing characters and distracting plot complications. The new Beauty and the Beast takes the skeleton of someone you loved, bedazzles it beyond reason and adds an honest-to-goodness teleporter. No, really.
It’s not great storytelling, but it starts so well. Bill Condon’s realization of a small town in France – full of daffy busybodies with nothing better to do than sing about Belle (Emma Watson), the local bookworm – is a picture book come to life. The cast is handsome and beautifully costumed and they seem well-fitted to their roles as the pieces come together. Gaston (Luke Evans), the local hero, wants Belle to marry him. She wants no part of it, and one night her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) doesn’t come home from market.
And why? Because he’s been apprehended by The Beast (Dan Stevens), a vain prince transformed into a monster by an enchantress, who must convince Belle to love him in order to lift that curse. Bill Condon adds a ghoulish little prologue that treats The Beast’s origins like an Edgar Allan Poe story, setting the stage for something dark and magical, but once the creature starts tromping around like an actual part of the story the flaws in Beauty and the Beast become difficult to ignore. That darkness transforms into mere gloominess, and the magic sinks into underlit and awkward CGI.
The Beast is a flawed creation, but not in the sense that the original tale intended. His form, once monstrous and feral, is now merely tall and goatlike. His face always appears to have been projected onto his head, instead of emerging naturally from his features. Even then he’s distractingly good-looking, if slightly furry. Dan Stevens contributes a strong vocal performance but without an appearance that evokes genuine monstrousness – which was the whole point if you stop and think about it – the only reason Belle has to reject him is his emotionally abusive behavior, and that’s not the kind of thing you want to be focusing on in a fairy tale musical for all ages.
Indeed, the focus is wildly off throughout Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast. The filmmakers seem to have highlighted a variety of little omissions from the original animated film – whatever happened to Belle’s mother, why the prince’s servants were cursed too, why Gaston’s sidekick Le Fou (Josh Gad) was such a loyal peon – and decided to fill the cracks in the story with those unanswered questions. The problem is that those questions mostly seem to have been better off unanswered.
The mystery of Belle’s mother is a headscratcher, since once we learn what really happened we also learn there was no good reason for it to be a mystery in the first place. What’s more, the only way to solve that mystery was, apparently, to give The Beast a teleporter which could have solved a lot of plot problems but which is only used once. Even when The Beast tells Belle that there’s “no time to lose” he merely gives her a horse to ride off into town instead of teleporting her there immediately. It’s a device that solves one problem that didn’t need solving and breaks the whole rest of the film in the process.
And why were the servants cursed by the enchantress too? The implication was always political, that the people of a nation are to be held accountable for the flaws of the individuals they allow to lead them. But instead we find out that the enchantress had merely decided to blame them for not raising the prince better, even though that wasn’t their job. Besides, if the enchantress does hold other people accountable for The Beast’s behavior, then turning him into a monster in the first place becomes little more than a callous exercise in blaming the victim.
Poor Le Fou, by the way. He’s Disney’s first openly gay character – or at least, NOW he is – and he’s played with aplomb by Josh Gad, but the first half of Beauty and the Beast treats him as a mincing proprietor of unwanted advances. The second half introduces a new storyline that sends Le Fou on a path to redemption, but instead of following that path to its logical conclusion – an actual confrontation with Gaston, the object of his affections, over Gaston’s moral failings – it simply lets Le Fou physically assault some other mean-spirited people instead. That was never the point of this new storyline, so although we can certainly appreciate the decision to give Le Fou more to do, we can also be disappointed that what he does do doesn’t make dramatic or thematic sense.
Beauty and the Beast may very well be the least of Disney’s recent live-action animation adaptations. It has no new perspective on the storyline, it simply adds more of it. The new musical numbers have little to no impact, perhaps best typified by “Evermore,” which The Beast sings as Belle flees the castle. The lyrics are mournful but the music is straight out of a power ballad, a tonal disconnect that might have worked if the film had any sense of irony. But good luck finding any.
We could go on like this. Certainly it’s easy to nitpick a film that went out of its way to include old lyrics about The Beast’s paws, but that didn’t bother to give this version of the character paws to sing about. But you don’t even have to nitpick, you can just point out all of the superfluous new frills that undermine this “tale as old as time” that worked perfectly well without them. Or you could argue that this cast (all them great) and the production and costume designers (who are clearly miracle workers) deserved better material. You know, like the material Disney already had.
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Top Photo: Walt Disney
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.