Beauty and the Beast (2017) – Movie Review

Beauty and the Beast
Directed by: Bill Condon
Written by: Stephen Chbosky & Evan Spiliotopoulos
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline,  Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson & Josh Gad
Music: Alan Menken
Certificate: PG
Release Date: March 17th 2017

1991’s ‘Beauty and the Beast‘ from Walt Disney Pictures is an animated masterpiece that needs little introduction. Considered one of the best family-movies of all time, animated or otherwise, the movie directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise was the first animated movie to be nominated for “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards and this was long before the Academy expanded the number of nominees. Alan Menkin’s music, the animation and the touching re-telling of a tale as old as time has made it stand out from Disney Animation’s impressive catalogue.

So in Disney’s recent wave of live-action remakes based off of beloved classics such as ‘Cinderella‘ and ‘The Jungle Book‘ it would seem logical to do the same to ‘Beauty and the Beast‘, however it’s not quite so simple. Whilst movies like ‘Cinderella‘ and ‘The Jungle Book‘ are beloved animated classics, they are rather shallow and have plenty of room for expansion, which is what their remakes director’s (Kenneth Branagh and Jon Favreau respectively) did. But ‘Beauty and the Beast‘ is already considered perfect and while director Bill Condon wrote the screenplay for the brilliant ‘Chicago‘ in 2002, he’s not worked on much of note since. Can Condon do the unthinkable and actually make this fairytale better than before, or have Disney bitten off more than they could chew here?

This remake more-or-less follows the plot of the 1991 original. A selfish and vain prince (Stevens) is cursed by an enchantress and turned into a monstrous Beast until he can find love. The staff of his castle are also cursed and are transformed into furniture. In a nearby town lives Belle (Watson), whose father Maurice (Kline) goes missing and is imprisoned by the Beast until Belle negotiates a swap; her freedom for his, condemning her to a life in the castle forever. However, with the help of the castle residents, the Beast and Belle start to warm to each other, though their potential romance is at risk of being cut short by the vindictive Gaston (Evans) who wants Belle to himself.

The nuts and bolts of the story are the same as the original, but there’s a few extra bells and whistles thrown in, including expanding on the backstory of some of the central characters, giving us a new original song, filling in narrative gaps and some nit-picks from the original film. ‘Beauty and the Beast‘ (2017) is firing on all cylinders when it’s directly aping ‘Beauty and the Beast‘ (1991). Alan Menkin’s terrific music still holds up incredibly well with songs like “Belle”, “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast” still being show-stopping tracks and the film faithfully recreates the original’s most famous sequences well and with affection.

There’s a lot to praise this remake for as it’s a terrific story, the characters are memorable, the emotions are strong and the use of colour and atmosphere are effective, however almost everything good about this remake is stuff that the original already did. There’s very little to compliment about this film that wasn’t done just as well, if not better in the 1991 original. The film’s more original additions and changes, however, range from questionable to outright baffling.

For example; the film’s opening. The original used the inherent abstraction with 2D animation to present a prologue through window-panes. Therefore, the first time we meet the Prince/Beast it’s through the perspective of Maurice and Belle who are the audience’s surrogates in the first act. In the remake, we get a clunky opening dance/song sequence, where we first meet the Prince in garish white make-up before being transformed into the Beast. It’s a prologue that wasn’t needed and it means we lose that sense of discovery from Maurice and Belle. The film also tries to elaborate on why the Beast is so selfish and that’s because his father was a negative influence on him, but the word “elaborate” is generous as it gets one line of dialogue and is never mentioned again so they might as well not have even bothered.

These attempts to flesh out the original film feel token, such as establishing Gaston as a veteran of war but doing nothing to expand on that concept, the residents of Belle’s town suffering amnesia due to the Enchantress’ curse adds nothing and while more time is dedicated to establishing who Belle’s mother is, that piece of character development is swiftly abandoned and the story continues on as normal. If anything, the 1991 original has a much tighter screenplay with more character beats despite being 45 minutes shorter…how is that even possible?

But let’s focus on some of the positives. If you know anything about Emma Watson’s off-screen persona you’ll know that she was more-or-less born to play this role and she does very well with the material. She’s empathetic, stoic when necessary and while she’s not the strongest singer she embodies the role well. Dan Stevens is a bit of a blank-slate as the Beast and that’s mainly because the motion-captured effects don’t give the character much in the way of expression. The 2D beast voiced by Robby Benson in the original was brimming with personality and a lot of that has been lost here with Dan Stevens doing little to pick up the slack. Luke Evans is…just perfect casting as Gaston and is just as great as you’d expect even though his characterisation is…questionable.

While the filmmakers try to give Gaston more humanity through his under-explained backstory about being a war veteran that is swiftly undercut by his actions later on in the movie where he ties Maurice to a tree and leaves him to get eaten by wolves. Even the Gaston of the 1991 original would look at that behaviour and go “Woah, buddy. Are you just going to murder that loony old man!?” But one brilliant, often neglected element of the original film was how the townsfolk become villainous unto themselves at the end. Their willingness to follow Gaston into battle shows the dangers of an isolationist culture. But because the background characters and supporting players are so poorly characterised in this remake, it just feels like a generic mob. The townsfolk in the original are so expressive and full of life because they were impeccably animated, but that visual characterisation is lost in translation into live-action.

One of the best things this adaptation has going for it is the acclaimed supporting cast from Kevin Kline as Maurice which stands head-and-shoulders over the bumbling, eccentric inventor of the original (and is the single, solitary improvement over the 1991 film), Josh Gad as LeFou as well as the terrific voice cast consisting of Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. All are exceptionally well cast and fill in the big shoes left by their predecessors, particularly Thompson. They really don’t put a foot wrong, it’s just a shame that ‘Beauty and the Beast‘ is so lacking in ambition because despite spending $160M on this remake (not including marketing and distribution) this film only seems to exist to remind audiences of how great the original movie was.

But it’s with the iconic ballroom sequence where we find a perfect summation of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as a whole. It’s nicely edited, the glamorous costumes are a perfect visual recreation of the original and the music is wonderfully composed. But the way Bill Condon shoots the scene robs it of most of its power because about 90% of it is shot at either an extreme wide or a medium shot. There’s no intimacy to the scene, as the film seems too concerned with the scenery around the dancers and not the dancers themselves. There’s nothing resembling a character-moment in the remake’s adaptation of the sequence. No moment like in the original where the Beast gulps after Belle moves his hands onto her waist, no moment where Belle rests her head on his chest, no visual interaction between the Beast towards Lumière and Cogsworth who are cheering him on from the sidelines. These elements, in conjunction with the production design and the music, make the ballroom scene from the original such a terrific sequence yet they’re completely absent from its live-action recreation. The visuals and sounds are there, but the soul is missing.

And then there’s just other odd inclusions like the Enchantress giving the Beast a mirror that can show you anything AND a book that can transport you anywhere. Not only is this addition just odd on the face of it (surely you’d just give the Beast one or the other, right?) but it also creates a plot-hole later on when Belle needs to quickly leave and save her father…but doesn’t use the book that can transport her right there. Even the new songs disappoint with original composer Alan Menkin giving the Beast a solo number with “Evermore,” but it’s really dull. It also feels like a poor structural decision to have a slow song follow the recreation of the iconic ballroom sequence, where emotions are high and the pace of the song can’t maintain that peak. This ultimately causes the ending of the second act to grind to a halt. More does not equal better.

I don’t want to give the impression that ‘Beauty and the Beast‘ (2017) is terrible as it isn’t. But the reason I’m not bringing up some of the things that worked about the movie and diving into the plot and the themes is because there’s nothing new here. Kevin Kline as Maurice aside, there’s nothing good that this film does that wasn’t almost literally copied and pasted from the original movie. Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Cinderella‘ improved on the original by expanding on the relationship between Cinderella and the Prince as well as altering its moral centre, Jon Favreau’s ‘The Jungle Book‘ turned a rather simple adventure film into a spectacle-driven character piece about what it truly means to be a “man.”. Disney and Bill Condon had no such ambition here. Visually and audibly 2017’s Beauty and the Beast hits the right notes, but it’s so concerned with reminding you of the original that it doesn’t take the additional steps to put you in that same emotional head-space.

Production wise, the movie looks great with huge, lavish sets, elaborately designed costumes and furniture with a tactile feel despite being upfront about its fairytale approach. One of the more impressive technical feats is how characters like Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts and Lumière are realised. You could take a still-image with them in the frame and they look photo-realistic and completely believable as talking objects. The Beast looks decent, but as mentioned before he isn’t particularly expressive. The dance sequences are great with “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” being the obvious highlights and while “Belle” is a faithful reenactment, the green-screen at the end at the climax of the song gives it a cheap feel. But still, the $160M production budget is up on screen and this does look like the 2D animated movie adapted into live-action.

1991’s ‘Beauty and the Beast‘ is one of the greatest movies ever made, but this remake with its baffling creative decisions, half-hearted narrative inclusions and faux emotional centre feels like nothing more than a colourful, entertaining footnote that gives the audience zero reason to ever engage or think about it again after viewing it. Why bother when the original does 99% of it substantially better with two-thirds the run-time? The cast are terrific, the music, plot, dialogue and production design absolutely hold up but there’s nothing else here other than a assembly-line reminder of how great the original movie was. It’s a victory-lap celebrating itself and it makes you wonder what could have been if the creative team actually went in aiming even a tiny bit higher than they actually did.

I give ‘Beauty and the Beast‘ (2017) 2 and a half stars out of 5.

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Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 24th Apr 18