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« Beauty and the Box Office. Plus Iron Fist. | Main | On This Day: Glenn Close Born, Ben Kingsley Knighted, Sean Connery Bonded »
Sunday
Mar192017

Review: Disney's recreation of "Beauty and the Beast"

This review was previously published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad

Tale as old as time
True as it can be

You wouldn’t think that ‘tales as old as time’ would need so much retelling but they do. Certain properties never go away or are open to constant reinterpretation like the Shakespeare oeuvre or, well, fairy tales. A cursory bit of research reveals that there have been at least a dozen feature films or TV series from various countries based on Beauty and the Beast tale.

If you have never existed before today, here’s what you need to know: A cruel prince is cursed and transformed into a beast. If the Beast doesn’t learn to love and be loved in return by the time the last petal on a magic rose falls, the curse will become permanent. Enter a beautiful girl who could be the one to break the spell...

Disney’s new colorful blockbuster Beauty and the Beast (2017) isn’t out to create a new take or even to pick liberally from past interpretations for something like a remix. It has one and one ambition only: recreate their 1991 animated classic in live-action!

Whether this directive came from the Mouse House executives or the performance anxiety of Director Bill Condon and team we may never know but it’s a strangely paralyzing approach. And not just for the filmmakers but the audience, too. Once the realization that they’re dutifully aiming for a shot-by-shot remake settles in there’s really nothing left for the audience to do but either sing-a-long or spend the two hours playing “spot the difference.” 

Just a little change
Small to say the least

I chose the latter to be respectful of my fellow moviegoers, since my voice is less Audra McDonald and more Emma Watson if you know what I mean. The shot-for-shot realization settled in as soon as Belle entered her ‘little town’ singing about the joys of reading in her book club of one. (My favorite moment in the original is when she sits by the fountain singing to a flock and one sheep eats a page from her book. Hee. But it’s not there?! Justice for sheep actors!!!)

This moment, one of the most soaring in the 1991 film, was a pitch perfect homage to The Sound of Music. Now it just feels forced.

Given that the live-action recreation is 40 or so minutes longer than the animated original, there are a few changes. Generally speaking the book scenes are much longer, in an attempt to flesh out the characters though they remain cartoons, and the songs are given the same treatment with a few new ones thrown in. The Beast’s new solo stops the movie dead in its track but one of the other new songs is a lovely ensemble number in which the castle staff long to be free of the curse. It’s a welcome moment given that the phenomenal but barely seen supporting cast (Audra McDonald, Ewan McGregor, Sir Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, etcetera) aren’t given very much to do at all.

The most significant detour is a brief magical trip to Belle’s childhood. This shift is a particularly smart move, filling out the relationship between Belle (Emma Watson) and her father Maurice (well played by Kevin Kline) while still keeping the sequence braided into the larger romantic drama. More imaginative scenes like this one would have gone a long way to giving the movie an identity of its own. It’s a pity that this remake doesn’t have the confidence of Disney’s recent Cinderella, which moved about more freely than expected as if its animated predecessor were an equal dance partner rather than a strict choreographer.

Was this crotch shot what they meant by an "exclusively gay moment"

[GAY SPOILER] As for that “exclusively gay” moment we kept hearing about, that’s much ado about nothing. Le Fou is as gay as he’s always been though this time Josh Gad makes sure you get the joke. Which is not to say that he makes it funny. In the finale, he dances with another male villager who learns he likes wearing dresses when the wardrobe (Audra McDonald) attacks him in the ‘castle fights the villagers’ scene. This gay joking wouldn’t be so obnoxious since it’s clearly not intended to be hurtful, if it weren’t within the most heteronormative fairy tale of them all where the man is a metaphoric beast that the perfect woman must basically house-train and soften.

Your mileage may vary but the opening prologue in which we get a teensy glimpse of the Beast as Prince also portrays him as something of a bitchy fop, complete with decadent glitter eye makeup. Problematic if you ask me, equating feminine dress up with soulless vanity. And it’s also unfortunate to have gay jokes circling around a male star who has had such a confusing relationship with coming out but what can you do!? [/GAY SPOILER]

 

Both a little scared
Neither one prepared

Further compounding the problems of this stiff production is Emma Watson as Belle. Though her voice is on key (auto-tuned?), it’s abundantly clear that she’s no singer. There’s no character in her phrasing, no emotional nuance to the notes, and little joy. Soulfulness in singing is as vital to musicals as oxygen is to breathing. Perhaps she’ll improve in the book scenes? Alas, no. Watson has yet to learn to really relax in front of the camera which would normally be a death knell for movie stardom but this being the era of Franchises Ruling Them All, her Harry Potter Q-Rating goes a long long way.

Dan Stevens, who has been proving himself a surprisingly versatile actor since his breakout as Cousin Matthew on Downton Abbey, has a slightly easier time as the Beast but he isn’t the one carrying the picture. The visual effects people are helping there, too.

Certain as the sun
Rising in the east

Regardless of its rather glaring flaws this recreation of the animated classic is not without small moments of charm and flair. That’s inevitable if you’re doing a shot-by-shot remake of a stone cold classic (as Gus Van Sant’s much-reviled but somewhat interesting Psycho experiment proved in 1998). Yet when the takeaway to any remake is “Wasn’t the original great?” the whole enterprise feels like futile nostalgia.

Certain as the sun, this 2017 edition will be showered with as much real gold as any fictional fairy tale prince could ever possess. But as the Beast can tell you, money isn’t everything. He had so much of it but he appreciated nothing. That’s a sensation not unlike watching this movie’s gargantuan budget and inability to make you feel anything you weren’t already feeling merely by remembering the animated classic. The beast needed to find his soul to break the curse. By the time the credits roll the movie still hasn’t found its own.

Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast

Aside from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 ethereal French classic with his lover and muse Jean Marais as the beast, no Beauty and the Beast interpretations have had the staying power of Disney’s 1991 animated musical version. The 2017 movie will not crash this party of two.

With so many animated classics already in preproduction for their new live-action versions, there’s cause to worry. If Disney keeps cannibalizing itself, reenacting their animated hits like they’re nothing more than karaoke videos, the Mouse House will eventually become its own cursed forgotten kingdom.

We’re a long way off from audiences tiring of the repetition but one day they will. When they do that Disney logo will take on a whole new unintended meaning. That magic kingdom with its fairy dust rainbow will transform into a frozen castle filled with monstrous inanimate things. Those merely functional objects within will sort of resemble characters that were once beloved. In their tiny mechanical hearts they’ll live in terror of that last petal dropping.

Grade: C-
Oscar Chances: With the eye candy categories and mega-blockbusters that aren't critical darlings it's always a bit difficult to know, so let's just say outside shots at Original Song, Art Direction, and Costume Design.

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Reader Comments (21)

I wouldn't say Disney is in any real danger here by too faithfully recreating their animated classics as long as they keep coming out with new ones. Moana and Frozen both recently hit it big with critics and audiences. They have a formula that's working. Change up their older movies that people don't remember as well (Cinderella, Jungle Book, Sleeping Beauty) while sticking to the script with their post 90's hits. The huge box office returns and 'A' cinemascore this newest one reportedly earned shows that it's apparently what the public wants.

March 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDrewB

Having been a parent rather than a child back in 1991 - and a lifelong Disneyphile (I have 16mm prints of Silly Symphonies, okay?) to whom Beauty and the Beast is BY FAR my favorite and absolute best of the Disney Renaissance - I'm sorry, but not surprised, to see Nathaniel's negative review. I won't be rushing to see this, not because of vast nostalgia for the original and a "rape my childhood" fear, but because it's a frickin' unnecessary cash grab.

Maleficent and (even moreso) Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella, and even Snow White and the Huntsman had enough differences from the Disney classics they were sort-of remaking to be interesting in their own right. This as-feared nearly shot-for-shot remake doesn't bring enough new stuff to justify its existence. That doesn't mean it won't be a giant hit and monumental moneymaker, but as Sam Goldwyn famously said:

INCLUDE ME OUT!

PS - I've adored the amazing Jean Cocteau film for 50 years. Don't be put off by the subtitles or b/w... if you're a fan of the Disney film and have never seen it, you should check it out!

March 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

I'll always "defend" Maleficent, because it tries at least an interesting take on a villain. That's quite a 180 dregrees turn. It wasn't perfect, but interesting. And somehow enjoyable. I actually didn't expected that.
I might give this a chance then too.

March 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

It's interesting that in 1991, Disney campaigned hard to prove that you did not need live action to make a film that could be Oscar-nominated for Best Picture.

And now, 26 years later, Disney puts forth a live-action remake. Not a prequel or a variation, but the same story. They betrayed themselves, and certainly the animators among them, which makes this film much worse than a standard cash grab.

March 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrevity

Soulfulness in singing is as vital to musicals as oxygen is to breathing.

#andtheoscargoesto...

March 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I actually thought that Watson, Evans and Stevens, all managed to evoke their animated counterparts without being slavish. I found Watson charming, and grounded and oddly real, while Evans was a riot.

It's actually the old warhorses that I was disappointed with. Thompson, McKellan and McGregor didn't quite figure out how to avoid vocal karaoke, with McGregor's accent being distractingly awful, with none of the rakish warmth of Orbach. The only supporting character that really worked for design and vocal was Audra McDonald. The rest of the design lacked any real character, and was tough to see the characters expressions, a particular problem for the gaudy and chaotic restaging of Be Our Guest.

The original is one of my desert island movies. I found much of this version charming, diverting and moving. But it's not a patch on the 1991 masterpiece

March 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterIanO

I admit I watched this for Emma Watson (who I actually thought was divine as long as we can look past the auto-tune issues), and I thought that the film would be fine if not for the presence of the original, but it pales in comparison. I thought the storytelling took a major step back. However, the production values were great, and I think it has a better than outside chance at Costume Design, Art Direction, and even Visual Effects. I'm sure Disney Corp is still smarting at Cinderella losing Costumes to Mad Max Fury Road

March 19, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterajnrules

"It’s a pity that this remake doesn’t have the confidence of Disney’s recent Cinderella, which moved about more freely than expected as if its animated predecessor were an equal dance partner rather than a strict choreographer."

FUCKING LOVE that analogy Nathaniel.

March 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAkash

I begrudge the decision of executives when it comes to casting a movie like this. They didn't need a "star" to fill the seats. They needed someone who could elevate the material, and they could've done that with an actress who is actually trained as singer and with experience acting in musicals. Broadway has many great young actors, why are they overlooked? Those decision makers need to think outside the box. They could've cast someone like Samantha Barks for the role of Belle. Sigh. End of my rant.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJones

Jones -- that's absolutely true. I always wonder about that with Batman, too. When the properties sell the movie, why aren't you looking for the absolute best person for the role instead of a celebrity?

It's interesting that Superman is one of the only franchises that has avoided this "we need a star" thing, whenever they've recasted it's been with an at-the-time unknown.

March 20, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Jones and Nat, same with the Thor movies. Chris Hemsworth wasn't a star either.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

I hated the idea of a live action remake from the jump but the casting made me give it a chance. I even splurged for IMAX 3D which ended up being sooooo worth it overall.

But yeah, I ended up loving it. Unexpectedly. Emma was...uneven. Sometimes she justified her casting and sometimes she could have used a better take.

I ended up loving all the new songs. Days in the Sun is a lovely cast number and Emma's best song while Evermore was surprisingly emotional and I felt like the Beast really needed that song.

The dress looked *way* better on screen than it does in any pictures or promotional materials and I may have swooned during the dance sequence. Emma Thompson was a fine choice for Mrs. Potts and fared better than my beloved Ewan when it came to singing with an accent.

I just thought it was really elegantly done. Loved the closing credits too.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

The debate about casting non-singers in musical parts is a little too binary for my taste. No one would accuse Nicole Kidman of being a powerful singer but when she had a job to do she threw herself into it and sang with confidence and character. I'd give Meryl Streep the same credit in all her musical parts.

The problem is when actors A) aren't willing to do any interpretation in the studio and B) are too inhibited to sell their music on camera. And why would a director allow either of those things?

Those aren't tasks that require great instruments (though it helps). They just require some commitment and imagination.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

Didn't see it, but same here... I'd say Production Design, Costume and Song as likely Oscar noms.

However, the opening weekend smashed all previous records for a live-action musical. And Disney needs prestige to brand their set of remakes, so it WILL be pushed for a whole bunch of Oscar noms. They'll have money to fund the campaign, and therefore, we have to consider those other options that could be helped with a push: Cinematography, Film Editing, Visual Effects, Make up, both Sound, and even Watson and the film itself, given the expanded field.

In the worst of the cases: 2 noms (or none).
In the biggest case: 7-9 noms.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

I enjoyed it a little more than this, but it wasn't fantastic. As per usual with these live action updates to Disney classics, the technical elements win the day, especially PD. Beast's castle and grounds, the village, the tavern - all simply delightful. The servants stole the show as I assumed they would, and Kevin Kline was great as Maurice.

March 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

Wow!

Did we watch the same movie? I saw this last and thought this was absolutely THRILLING! So Dazzling and emotional... Sigh. To each his own :)

March 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

Jesus -- there is 0% chance Emma Watson will be up for an Oscar for this. But yes, the technicals are possible if they push really hard. My feeling is they'll be lucky to score a couple of nods though. Box office isn't everything. Especially when you're almost a year old by the time the nominations come out.

Hayden -- i wasn't trying to lean into a binary though i do feel absolutist about soulfulness. without it its just notes, and they just cant be thrilling. You dont need to be an amazing singer to sell a song but you do need to be a confident actor with some degree of musicality. Watson is neither a confident actor (i think her filmography backs up this claim even though she';s been good a couple of times) and she just doesn't have any musicality. That's death for musicals.

but i realize that talking to people in general about my issues with Emma Watson is futile. When people fall in love with an actor as a child (as 100s of millions did when they were children watching Harry Potter movies) they will forgive anything and make excuses for anything. She is just NOT a good actor and people keep saying how lovely and charming and good she is in things and no.... she's just an okay actor who occassionally works in a role. But she will always be Hermione and thus will always be loved.

March 22, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

It's a good movie but little slow, other animation and story line is great. some Shots are really good.

April 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAbram

We saw Beauty and the Beast this weekend. My daughter (33) felt like a 9 year old again. We both loved it, while Beauty and The Beast was never my most favorite film, and I veer away from musicals, I felt the characters were believe able and I fell in love all over again. Yes, others may make statements about the quality of the music, yada yada, but as just a plain movie goer, this movie was worth it.

April 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDeb

Does Jesse Eisenberg have a cameo in the bar scene of Beauty and the Beast?

April 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah

Some are saying why not cast a singer in a musical movie? How about Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in Lalaland, they were not singers and some of their vocals were off key? And they went sing, dance and off to nomination and winning an awards in Oscar and Golden Globe?

What were the critics were thinking? It is acceptable to one but not to others? Aren't having some double standard here?

April 25, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjo

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