The enduring success of Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast is such that the film does not solely remain one of the greatest animated features of all time but among the greatest of any medium. The first Disney musical to be translated to Broadway, it is a well quoted fact that Beauty and the Beast was also the first animation ever to gain a – much deserved – Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. Thus, at a time in which the House of Mouse seems intent on remaking their entire back catalogue, a live action update of this particular classic was surely inevitable, if unnecessary.
Spinning that famed tale as old as time, Beauty and the Beast is fairytale story of a Prince who is cursed by an Enchantress for his vanity and cruelty to become the titular Beast in his, similarly damned, castle. The curse can only be broken with the Beast finding love and being loved in return, so when a brilliantly intelligent young woman, Belle, arrives to offer herself as his prisoner, in place of her father – trapped ‘a lifetime for a rose’ – his servants are duly hopeful. The more Belle and the Beast interact, the more each benefits from the effect of sight through new eyes and the more a relationship gradually blossoms. There is, however, a time limit on lifting the enchantment the Enchantress having left behind a rose; when the final petal falls, the curse will remain forever binding.
Directed by Bill Condon, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast does update and expand upon its animated muse, itself based on the original French novel by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (who gets a nod, Belle’s ‘provincial town’ being named Villeneuve). Forty minutes longer than the animation, here backstories have been crafted and expanded for the characters with admittedly mixed success. Belle, played by Emma Watson, and her father (Kevin Kline) are granted a deceased mother and wife, respectively, with a tragic Parisian origin. The stained-glass prologue of 1991 meanwhile is this time brought into the third dimension, providing a more detailed look at the Prince’s audacious lifestyle, before later explaining the root cause. Similarly, Emma Thompson’s Mrs Potts, Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth and Audra McDonald’s Madame de Garderobe (Belle’s previously unnamed wardrobe) gain spouses, with Luke Evans’ Gaston hinted to have a pre-tale war record. Admirable in its ambitions, so many extensions do rather overwhelm the encompassing effect. Whereas Belle and the Beast achieve a stronger sense of character through their histories, for other characters additions feel somewhat tacked on and ineffectual – Gaston, particularly, gains little by the throwaway reference, utilised for a gag aside. Substantiation for the ramifications of the curse, on the other hand, are a welcome means for Condon to up the ante of its imminent threat.
Also added are three new songs for the soundtrack to accompany the classics, including the Oscar-winning title tune itself, scored by Alan Menken, returning from the original, and written by Tim Rice (Aladdin, The Lion King), filling the shoes of Howard Ashman, to whom the film is dedicated. Particularly memorable is the recurrent musical motif of ‘How Does a Moment Last Forever’, whilst ‘Evermore’ makes for a neat addition in providing the Beast with a ballad of his own, powerfully performed by a surprisingly bass-throated Stevens. Absent, however, is the, formerly deleted but later restored, song ‘Human Again’ in favour of the more mournfully sanguine ‘Days In the Sun’ from the ensemble, indicative of a slight shift in the film’s emotional intent. That said, spectacular set-pieces come in the form of Lumière (Ewan McGregor)’s ‘Be Our Guest’ and the – oddly Dick van Dyke – delivery of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ from Thompson, over a faultless recreation of the original’s famous ballroom scene. Likewise, ‘Belle’ remains a charming opener, whilst Evans and Josh Gad, as Gaston’s groupie Le Fou, revel in a pub rendition of ‘Gaston’ so gleefully camp that the nonsensical hoo-ha over a transitory ‘gay moment’ towards the end is rendered quite preposterous in its hyperbole. Thank Mickey that Disney are finally moving into the twenty-first century! One fairer critique that can be made of the soundtrack on the other hand is that the sound editing is surprisingly patchy for such an expensive production. The film’s dubbing, for instance, is often distractingly noticeable and noticeably distracting.
Equally distracting are many of the visual effects on show. In Jon Favreau’s remake of The Jungle Book this aspect of the production stood out for its impressive hyperreality but in Beauty and the Beast it is an uncanny surreality that takes the fore. Whilst the castle itself is well realised, with snowy gardens recalling the maze of Kubrick’s The Shining, from the opening shot of a painterly clouded sky, much of the aesthetics here feel overworked and too cartoonish in the extent of their computerisation. As a translation of the animated landscapes these are highly facsimile deployments but feel artificial at times. Similarly one-note are the dulcet animation of the Beast and the choice to flatten Mrs Potts’ face to the side of her teapot bodice. This artificiality isn’t aided by the inevitably derivative nature of the film. Previous adaptations of Villeneuve’s fairytale, surreal in conception, such as the 1991 animation and Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bête work well with their material by establishing their own unique world in which they can exist truthfully to their own rules of existence; Condon’s film however hasn’t this luxury, feeling instead referential to a borrowed vision.
That’s not to say that Beauty and the Beast is not frequently lovely to look at. Cogsworth and Lumière are splendidly brought to life and the choreography is excellent. Observe, for intense, the repeated theme of synchronicity in the routines of the villagers, emphasising the repetitive lack of creativity in their lives. Watson is the perfect Belle, every bit the feminist heroine the character deserves, and adds a real sense of grit and yearning whilst Stevens brings much needed emotive resonance to the Beast amid CGI work that is hardly forthcoming. Try not to cry as he insists Belle must return to her father. In supporting roles, Kline deserves mention for his pleasing turn, as does Gad, but its Evans who impresses most in a performance conveying more humour and personality, despicable as the character is, than the rest of his career combined.
Ultimately, Condon wraps the whole thing up with a bow so sweet as to leave all but the most beastly of audiences embraced by the fuzziest of warm hugs. Beauty and the Beast isn’t a triumph, being inconsistent and certainly not a film with a legitimate raison d’être. It is however a jukebox celebration of an experience and one hard not to thoroughly enjoy.