Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Film Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty and the Beast (2017; Directed by Bill Condon)

I feel like it’s safe now to admit to a certain childhood fondness for Beauty and the Beast, one of the critical and commercial pinnacles of the 1990s Disney Renaissance and the first animated feature film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (and the only one prior to the post-2009 expansion of the annual list of nominees to more than five films). The 1991 film now seems a naively romantic film with broadly old-fashioned (and even a little troubling) gender roles, and the technical and creative leaps in animation over the past quarter-century have largely left it in the dust. But in its time, it was a grand and sweeping entertainment, with imagination and vision, resonant if simple symbolism, and a fine musical score, for those to whom the showtune style appeals (you might have guessed that I am no Broadway showstopper devotee, but the Oscar-winning title song provided me with an enduring mnemonic device for recalling the direction of the sunrise, so it must be worth something). It even provided one of the signature shots in the movies, and an early harbinger of the computer animation that would soon render the film’s sumptuously old-fashioned drawn style obsolete: that famous CG-assisted dolly shot of Belle and the Beast dancing in the ballroom, a moment of pure, unalloyed wonder.

In a pop culture age of heavily-leveraged, almost weaponized nostalgia, and in the wake of the crushingly successful (if only average) “live action” remake of The Jungle Book, Disney’s decision to remake its Renaissance era colossus should not have been surprising. But the big issue here is that it isn’t surprising: indeed, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast is practically a beat-for-beat retread of the 1991 movie, extrapolating a bit in backstory, design, and supporting characters (along with some deeply forgettable new songs) but otherwise quite nearly replicating the beloved original. Remakes, even slavishly faithful ones, need not be short on inspiration or even originality, but despite its massive success, this Beauty and the Beast comes across as a pale imitation of its now-classic model, and as a superficial and inconsistent movie to boot.

For those unfamiliar with the story (which, again, is almost exactly the same as that of the movie it’s remaking, itself based on a mid-1700s fairy tale mostly read in abridged versions), a plot synopsis would not go amiss. In a fairy-tale version of ancien régime France, a vain, haughty prince is cursed by an enchantress to whom he callously refuses hospitality. Transformed into a hirsute, horned, bipedal creature, the prince is confined to his fantastical château along with his many servants, who are likewise transformed, with a touch both sinister and whimsical, into moving, talking household objects of varying levels of anthropomorphization. If the curse is not lifted in time, the beast and his servants will be trapped in their bewitched forms forever, their core spark of humanity lost. Represented with a basic poetic elegance by a red rose under a glass case slowly losing its enchanted petals, the curse can only be lifted by mutual love between the Beast and another.

So much for the Beast (played through CG motion-capture by Dan Stevens); enter the Beauty. Belle (Emma Watson) is a lovely, bookish young woman who lives in a  provincial French village with her artist and tinker father Maurice (Kevin Kline), who fled to the country after an initially unspecified calamity took his wife and Belle’s mother. Both are thought eccentric outcasts by the conservative-minded villagers, although they are hardly odder than any other sensitive, inventive creatives. Belle does have one fervent, troublingly-determined admirer, however: Gaston (Luke Evans), a hunter and former soldier with an absurdly puffed-up ego who steadfastly refuses to take Belle’s persistent and increasingly direct refusals to his marriage proposals as anything resembling a “no”.

Belle and the Beast are drawn together when Maurice becomes lost in an enchanted wintry forest and wanders into the Beast’s castle, where he is taken prisoner. Belle searches him out and selflessly takes his place as the Beast’s captive, which sets into motion the inevitable, predictable clockwork of the Hollywood romance plot: he is rude and dismissive of her, she resents and dislikes him, but they draw gradually together, bonding over his magnificently large library and a tentative, sweet attachment to the finer things. The fussy, comedic efforts of the servants to push them into each other’s arms don’t hurt either. When the mean-spirited Gaston and the parochial townsfolk learn of the Beast’s existence, however, their budding love will face a dire mortal threat.

Beauty in the Beast, in both its animated and CG-enhanced live-action form, owes much to influences beyond its specific French literary source. The Beast is characterized as a full-on brooding Byronic hero requiring an education of experience to render him an acceptable match for the Beauty (Stevens leans capably into this obvious-enough character arc), the softening of his brusque animal nature presaging his climactic return to handsome-prince status (if this is a spoiler to you, you must be new to this “narrative” thing). The romance between him and Belle owes as much to Jane Austen plots (and thus to the modern Hollywood romantic comedies so superficially influenced by them) as to fairy-tale conventions, turning on small domestic mannerisms and interpersonal interactions as much as on grand heroic gestures (he saves her from a vicious pack of wolves, suffering painful injuries in the process). In terms of visual design, the Beast’s castle is leaping fantasy-Gothic on the outside and pure fanciful Rococo on the inside, with Art Nouveau touches in its rambling, darkened neo-classical garden grounds, while the village (cheekily named Villeneuve after the female French novelist who originally set down the tale) is altogether more medieval in character, to emphasize its comparative backwardness. There are some largely-unacknowledged politics of class simmering in these thematic contrasts, not to mention in the literally-objectified servants remaining loyal to their self-involved aristocratic master, but Beauty and the Beast pays them no heed.

Beauty and the Beast doesn’t dispense with the problematic captor-captive aspect of its leads’ romantic attachment. But given its casting of the famously socially-conscious feminist Watson (who “studied” the contours of Stockholm Syndrome abusive situations and concluded that Belle’s did not qualify before accepting the role), the film does at least attempt to enhance Belle’s intelligence, independence, and agency, qualities that the 1991 animated version made a big show of in her introduction in a bustling village-life musical number bearing her name but failed to seriously follow through on, consigning her to damsel status in the eventual testosteronic standoff between the hulking Beast and the villainous Gaston. Watson (by all accounts a genuinely remarkable person, but unfortunately not yet a thespian of any particular distinction) gives Belle a radiant, acute dignity but can only do so much about what the still-traditional contours of the story require of her .

In Gaston, the 1991 film achieved a subtly subversive reversal that this 2017 remake retains: the handsome, dashing man of action might have been the heroine’s object of affection in a more traditional fairy tale, but Disney pushed those heroic qualities into preening, egotistical ridiculousness and an aggressive, cruel disregard for others. Furthermore, Gaston is so used to being admired and fluffed by his crowd of hangers-on (the primary example being his mooning right-hand man LeFou, played here by Josh Gad, whose role ginned up no small amount of controversy upon the film’s release for being either too gay or not gay enough) that Belle’s rejection of him in favour of a reclusive beast-man smashes his inflated-yet-brittle veneer of masculine self-confidence, revealing the violent sociopath lurking underneath. The casting of Evans should have proven a masterstroke for this character, but the final result is hardly as thunderously successful as it ought to have been. The comedic focus of Gaston in the first two acts (which Evans handles with grinning aplomb) doesn’t pivot believably to mob-leading, pistol-clutching villainy in the last act.

For a two-plus-hour feature, Beauty and the Beast often feels rushed, pushing through key plot and character junctures to furiously unspool household-servant whimsy and spectacular musical sequences. The latter are better when replicating, with occasional embellishments, the original numbers (the new songs, as mentioned, are all rather bad): “Belle” and “Gaston” are lusty, rural-folk-inflected romps; “Be Our Guest”, headlined by Ewan McGregor (who simply has not been allowed to sing enough since Moulin Rouge) as the flamboyant candelabra/butler Lumière, takes the original scene’s elaborate Busby Berkeley rotating visual geometric arrangements into the CGI age with a dizzying (if drained and abstracted) affect (it’s not certain that it quite overcomes its now-equally-legendary Simpsons parody, however). Only the title song suffers particularly in comparison: Emma Thompson as the maternal teapot/housekeeper Mrs. Potts cannot hope to match the grandmotherly warmth of Angela Lansbury’s vocal performance, and the visual accompaniment – Belle and the Beast dance in a ballroom veritably choked with chandeliers, whose candles transition into sparkling coloured pinlights on a night sky background at the high moment – cannot hope to approach the suddenly-soaring technical/artistic virtuosity of that glorious crane dolly shot in the original.

But it’s the former element – the castle servants in their household item form – that proves the trickiest element for director Bill Condon to get right. There’s a previously-unconceived-of uncanny valley problem in rendering such inherently cartoonish characters in the more photorealistic CG style, and it’s never solved. The object/servants just look and feel off, all of the time. The concerted work of the CG artists manages to evade the dark promise of early promotional images, which suggested that the visualization of the clock/steward Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) at least might be trespassing into the territory of the nightmarishly grotesque. But neither their appearance nor role in the film ever quite coalesces, even in the goofy climactic battle between them and the castle-invading village mob. When the actual actors behind the technology appear in the coda, it’s a palpable reminder of the presence that is missing. The brief shots of Stanley Tucci as a kooky-coiffed music maestro, who spends the film trapped in a harpsichord and whose opera-diva wife, played by Audra McDonald, has been turned into a wardrobe, are the most tantalizing: even in these throwaway glimpses, the ever-underrated Tucci is floridly wild-eyed and totally switched-on.

If only this Beauty and the Beast, so handsomely staged, nicely cast, and opulently expensive-looking, could flip that same switch. Audiences responded enthusiastically to its re-envisioning of the beloved animated original, and Disney now has similar live-action/CG remakes of Renaissance-era favourites The Lion King, Aladdin, and Mulan in the works as a result. But outside of the commercial impetus (which is always already there with Hollywood blockbusters, and therefore hardly bears examination or holding up as a hammer of criticism), what’s the point of this retread? Creatively and artistically, despite the talent and effort and technical alchemy poured into it, there isn’t much. The 2017 film does next to nothing that the 1991 film did not do, and some of those things are not done as well here. In this tale as old as time, the hold of tradition and textual expectation is just too strong, and any nascent sense of magic suffers as a result.

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