Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Hattie Morahan, Haydn Gwynne, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Nathan Mack, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sonoya Mizuno.
Director: Bill Condon
Rating: PG (for some action violence, peril and frightening images.)
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Date: March 17, 2017
Mandeville Films and Walt Disney Pictures.
Written by: Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopolous, based on the animated film “Beauty & The Beast”, written by Linda Woolverton, adapted from the fairy tale “La Belle et la Bête” by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve.
As Disney remakes some of its most beloved animated classics into full-fledged live-action (and CGI enhanced) feature films, perhaps the most acclaimed film from the Disney Renaissance is Beauty and the Beast. The first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture by the Academy, the 1991 film is a perfect storm of humor, romance, unforgettable music, and dazzling hand-drawn animation. Truly it feels special; special enough to belong in a time capsule and to this day, it has as passionate a fanbase for it as any movie in the Disney canon.
With the announcement Disney was adding Beauty and the Beast to its remake slate, optimism has been feverish, after the House of Mouse delivered good to great to outstanding remakes of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon in recent years.
Eager to stand finally on her own in a big ol’ movie, without the Harry Potter machine behind her, Emma Watson stars as Belle. On paper, a perfect choice. Eager to break out on his own, after a respected run on television’s “Downton Abbey” and well-received appearances in movies The Guest and A Walk Among Tombstones, this is Dan Stevens‘ moment to shine in a big ol’ movie as well. So let’s crank up the Disney machine, toss Oscar-winner Bill Condon behind the camera and recognize that this version of Beauty & The Beast could truly be something special.
And the operative word here is “could.”
As Howard Ashman and Alan Menken‘s 1991 Oscar-winning theme song states, this is “a tale as old as time…”, the origins of which date back as far as 1740, and Condon gives us an opulent, extravagant look at the world this Belle inhabits. We open with a debutante ball taking place and a seemingly haggard woman arriving unannounced. Turned away when she offers a rose for payment, she reveals herself to be young and beautiful and curses the domiciled Prince to a beastly, transformative life. The woman clears out the memories of all in attendance and agrees to lift the curse if and only if the Prince finds and receives true love before the rose crumbles into a darkened and deathly crumble.
Many of us know the story from here. Years go by and Belle’s father (Kevin Kline) is a kind inventor who travels off to sell his creations, only to get lost in the forest, ensnared by the Beast after stumbling into a castle in the woods. Belle sets out to find her father and, while fending off the advances of the arrogant, burly Gaston (Luke Evans), she makes a deal with the Beast to release her father, agreeing to stay in the castle in exchange for his freedom.
And as the song tells us, both are a little scared and neither one prepared for what occurs between them…
Condon has something of a perilous task here, attempting to make a film that has to somehow pay homage to a modern-day classic while also standing on its own feet as a film that can be appreciated apart from its predecessor. Eventually, Condon finds a rhythm and a cadence with his film but man oh man, if it is not a challenge to draw comparisons between Condon’s film and the animated work of directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.
We have nearly all of the songs from the 1991 film here, as well as Menken returning to the project with songwriter Tim Rice (The Lion King), crafting four new songs, none as memorable as Menken’s Oscar-winning work with the late Ashman. With a terrific cast at his disposal, Condon has the ability to still sweep us up, whisking us away into another world, with moments of sheer allure and grandeur.
As a big fan of Emma Watson (aren’t we all though, quite frankly…), she struggles here a bit, especially early on when she seems to lack confidence, at least vocally, in the film’s opening number. She looks the part and radiates the glow of royalty, but surprisingly, takes awhile to disappear into the role. For awhile this feels like…Emma Watson…playing Belle…in a new version of Beauty and the Beast.
On the other hand, Dan Stevens is not bad here in terms of performance, but the lackluster CGI work on his character is something hard to ignore. This is not necessarily his fault, but Stevens fights to power through the makeup and visual effects, hamstringing his effectiveness and making his work here more about playing the Beast and less about organically creating a character.
With that said, however, moments here retain an elegance that is impossible to deny. And it is hard to not smile when you see Condon exhibiting a child-like enthusiasm for what he is presenting on screen. Largely, the CGI works well on the cursed inhabitants of the Beast’s castle, and vocal work by Ewan McGregor (Lumière, the candleabra), Emma Thompson (the motherly teapot, Mrs. Potts), and Ian McKellen (Cogsworth, the clock), offers a new, but familiar take on characters we have an immediate fondness for.
Oftentimes, remakes beg the question that just because you can does not always mean that you should. And in this era where Disney is infusing their classic animation with real life, flesh-and-blood actors, Beauty and the Beast may be the first new era Disney film to really make us question that out loud.
Watson and Stevens do eventually win you over, and the film largely looks terrific. However, a longer than necessary running time and a slow start might allow you to eventually appreciate this experience, but then head home and dig out that old DVD or videocassette, celebrating an animated film that truly resembles a tale as old as time.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- Fans of the 1991 animated film, and of the origin story, will likely find a lot to like about Condon’s look, tone, and feel for this live-action version of the film.
- If you detach from a more critical eye on this, it is easy to be swept up in the world that Condon and cast and crew create.
- Though not on screen enough, Kevin Kline is rather delightful here, and by the end, audiences will likely fall in love with Emma Watson and Dan Stevens by the time the film comes to an end.
- The film runs 129 minutes and really does not need the extra padding. A leaner, more efficient film would benefit all involved.
- The new songs are quite forgettable, the warming up to Watson and Stevens in these roles is notable, and the movie just lacks the emotional connection the animated film captured so incredibly well.
- Condon seems unsure, as do writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopolous, as to whether they want to honor the animated film, embrace the Broadway show, or pull in elements for other iterations of the story. The movie feels lost in the shuffle at times.