Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald Stanley Tucci, Kevin Kline, Hattie Morahan, Nathan Mack, Ian McKellan, and Emma Thompson
Directed by Bill Condon
Although I stopped my Disney Discussion before I got to their fantastic 1991 animated classic, it should be noted that the original Disney Beauty and the Beast is my second favorite film of all time. (Only Psycho tops it.) Needless to say, I was not avidly looking forward to Disney's live-action remake. Much like the 1998 nearly shot-for-shot remake of Psycho which proved to be a waste of time when the infinitely superior original exists, I was extraordinarily hesitant heading into a theater to watch the remake of Beauty and the Beast. While I'd love to say that this 2017 version is a glorious take on the classic animated film, I can't in the slightest. Instead, I found myself asking the the following question throughout:
Why does this film exist if its creative team is not going to make a single thing better than the original?
Here's the thing about this 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast -- the story still holds up incredibly well. I was never bored as I watched the tale of Belle (Emma Watson) and the Beast (Dan Stevens) unfold with the layers of their distrust in one another changing to love blooming in its place. The nuances of Alan Menken's music and the late Howard Ashman's lyrics still paint a lovely picture in song and add pivotal characterizations to the film's core ensemble. Yet despite a few new songs and some odd and misguided changes to the story, director Bill Condon has assembled a film that hews much too close to the original to have a feeling that it's its own unique piece. If the only purpose of this film is create the same exact tone and feel of its animated predecessor but to do so in live action, what was the point other than to simply be a major cash grab for the Walt Disney corporation?
Frankly, it's obvious that there was no other point. This is a cash grab through and through, moreso than any of the previous Disney live action remakes of the past few years. Despite its epic failure, Alice in Wonderland at least was manically what it was. Maleficent took on the Sleeping Beauty story from a different perspective. Cinderella gave us more well-rounded and deeply developed characters. The Jungle Book provided a sensory special-effects experience that was visually enticing. This Beauty and the Beast does none of that, instead insisting on staying so close in tone to its predecessor that its reason for existence proves moot. Sure, the film attempts to give us a little more backstory to Belle and the Beast (hence its 30-minute-plus longer runtime than the richly developed, yet concise original), but that exposition proves to be silly most of the time rather than insightful. (As an example, one of the few unique moments of the piece -- a journey back in time to when Belle was a child -- seems aggravatingly unnecessary despite its attempt at character development.)
I realize my last parenthetical comment seems contradictory to my biggest qualm with the film. Here I am complaining about this iteration's lack of originality and yet I'm berating its attempts to be different at the same time. I was all for "difference" here, but there has to be a reason for it and I found most of the film's changes disappointingly uncreative. Frankly, the best change is one that's been widely criticized in a large chunk of the reviews I've read. Following their dance to the titular song (which is a huge let-down in and of itself in both visual and aural execution), Belle runs home to her father who she discovers is being harmed by the maleficent Gaston (Luke Evans -- the one shining aspect of the piece). The Beast is in emotional shambles, destitute that his one true love (and his one chance of overcoming the horrible spell that's been placed upon him) has run away. He sings a desperately emotional plea in the new song "Evermore" which, while not quite as emotionally heartbreaking as Broadway's equivalent version of this number "If I Can't Love Her, still succeeds in cluing the viewers in to the Beast's psyche at the time. This unique moment is what I wanted more of from this film and instead director Condon, writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, and the Disney corporation have just regurgitated nearly everything that made the animated film so fantastic. The second time isn't always the charm, however, and that's the case here.
Emma Watson is lackluster (though serviceable) as Belle. She lacks the charisma present in the animated character and while Watson's Belle is perhaps a bit more assertive and "feminist" (in a good way), there's an emotional blankness behind her eyes in many of the scenes. I'll also never understand why one's singing voice isn't always a top priority when casting actors in a musical. Sure, some musical films -- La La Land, as an example -- can skate by on the charm of the characters whose less-than-perfect singing actually adds a layer to their cinematic personas. I simply don't think that works in a movie like this which sets itself up as an old-school stylized musical. Being able to sing is important here and with the exception of a few adequate moments in the song "Something There," Watson lacks the emotional phrasing needed to succeed when starring in a movie musical. Dan Stevens as the Beast fares a little better with the aforementioned "Evermore" number granting him an opportunity to give his character some hefty gravitas. Granted, his performance is essentially crafted by motion capture special effects experts, but I found the Beast to be a well-animated effect at least.
Unfortunately, that's more than I can say for many of the other special effects-created animated supporting cast who take on the forms of candlestick Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), feather duster Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), armoire Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), and piano Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci). None of these performers (with perhaps the exception of Mbatha-Raw) do a thing to exceed their marvelous vocal predecessors who came before them and their gothic, dark design is almost always visually unappealing. Essentially all doing voice-overs, the heart and charm of the animated film is lost in this version's characters. Pivotal moments like "Be Our Guest" and "Beauty and the Beast" are disappointingly staged, poorly re-enacted, and oddly paced and sung by the likes of McGregor and Thompson, creating emotional vacuums where there should've been charm and heart.
The funny thing after writing all of the above which should seemingly yield a scathing rating below is that inherently the story behind Beauty and the Beast is still a successful one and since this version hardly deviates from the original, it's not an all-out failure. While nothing in this go-around is better than the original -- although Luke Evans interpretation of Gaston comes awfully close as he fully embraces the hammy machismo that shaped that character in the animated version -- it's tough to say this film is unwatchable. What I can't understand, though, is why anyone would want to watch this version when a perfect version of this same story is available. Inherently, I do have problem with Disney reaching back into its animated vault to create live action versions simply to pad its coffers (albeit with boatloads of money if this film's success is any indication). However, it they're going to have to do it, they need to at least be willing to deviate somehow from the original especially if it's one as perfect as Beauty and the Beast.
The RyMickey Rating: C