I’ve made no secret of the fact that possibly my least favourite trend in studio cinema today is these live-action fairy-tale remakes. It’s particularly egregious that most of these inevitably are coming from Disney, who have all the money in the world yet apparently wish to just recycle their old material, slapping a fresh coat of paint on it to re-sell to the public on mass. This one though, was a little different; I have to admit that for the first time for one of these films I was mildly excited about seeing a new take on Beauty and the Beast. Not that I thought it was a good idea especially, just that the original was so ubiquitous when I was I kid I couldn’t help but get sucked in the moment the familiar tinkly piano refrain kicked in on the first teaser trailer.
On the more cynical side, this now shows Disney, rather than looking to their classics from decades back as they had been before, jumping straight to the nineties and their famed “renaissance” period, serving up polished re-dos of material that will already be very, very familiar to the majority of the audience, expect new versions of Aladdin, The Lion King and The Little Mermaid all soon as well! Each time one is released, like now, they beg the same question, other than be a tech demo like The Jungle Book was, what purpose do these films have to exist? Beauty and the Beast unfortunately gets no closer to answering this.
In short, this is not some new take on the classic fairy-tale, it is a straight up remake of the 1991 animated film that is beholden to its predecessor in a variety of ways, using it as the basis for its general look, with many costumes and set designs basically being re-creations. The best option chosen for the animated medium doesn’t necessarily translate directly over into live action, and Belle and the Beast’s iconic costumes do not stand out here anywhere near as much as they did in their original form. There is not really anything this movie does that wasn’t done better in the original. It feels a lot like a weird, big-budget karaoke version of it at times.
To that point, I have to give the film and director Bill Condon some credit in completely embracing the musical aspect, this film is a full-blown musical spectacular at heart, which both advantages and disadvantages it in places. The opening number, an almost direct recreation of the original, in general works well in establishing the film and the setting, but those familiar with the original will immediately notice when some of the lyrics are tweaked slightly, or indeed when a short new segment is added sing by Belle’s father (Kevin Kline). It sticks out in a slightly uncomfortable way.
The film re-uses all of the original’s songs, similarly making a few alterations at times, yet also adds in a number of newer ones, written by original composer Alan Menken and new lyricist Tim Rice. These newer ones are, upon first viewing anyway, not even half as memorable as the originals, this may be due to the uneasy combination of mixing completely forgettable new tunes in with extremely familiar ones, but when put up directly against one another, the new ones can’t compete.
In fact, the film appears to expect a degree of familiarity from its audience anyhow, it skips over scenes of importance to the plot in record time, such as Belle’s initial meeting with the Beast and subsequent imprisonment. Similarly, their courtship scenes feel rushed for some time, and only begin to connect when they start discussing literature later on.
Clocking in at a considerably longer running time than its animated counterpart, Beauty and the Beast 2017 does unfortunately feel the need to add in a fair amount of needles padding to the classic story, including a sub-plot fleshing out Belle’s family backstory that involves some sort of time-travel visions and a teleportation device. There are a few interesting touches to this; we see the Beast in human form and understand a bit more of the extent of his shallow selfishness prior to being cursed for example, but on the whole they just result in a needlessly bloated re-telling of a story we know doesn’t need to be.
Truth be told, if the primary reason for these movies (other than money of course) is that the CGI is capable of now rendering into live action footage what was only achievable via 2D animation years ago, then the effects aren’t quite there yet. The CGI Beast (played by should-be-future 007 Dan Stevens) doesn’t always convince when he’s moving around. When required to emote, the performance and animation on his face work quite well, but not so much in the wider shots, and the trouble is he’s never remotely scary, even in his shadowy first appearances, he just looks too cuddly I suppose? Stevens does get one big new solo number that, despite what sounds like a digital alteration being applied to lower his speaking voice most of the time, still allows his powerful singing voice to really shine through.
Many of the enchanted household objects also succumb to the struggle of making photo-realistic anthropomorphised objects appealing to watch, particularly Candelabra Lumière (Evan McGregor with dodgy French accent) and Chip the teacup. Some of the others such as Cogsworth (Ian McKellen without a dodgy French accent) and flying feather duster Plumette (an underused Gugu Mbatha-Raw) work far better visually, and the big ‘Be Our Guest’ number survives being a big overblown mess of CGI on the strength of the music alone.
As Belle, Emma Watson makes for a fine, but unremarkable lead. Her singing voice reflects this, perfectly serviceable, but nothing exceptional. The stand-out cast member of the film by far is Luke Evans as Gaston. He delivers an energetic performance that demonstrates his theatrical talents in a way that he hasn’t ha a chance to do on screen before.He owns the film whenever he’s present, embracing every over-the-top aspect of his character even if the script seeks to make him considerably more sadistic. The same can’t be said of his irritating sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad), who on paper has a more interesting arc yet is just grating all the time, and the jokes centred on him speaking in a more modern vernacular don’t land at all. Oh and as for the “exclusively gay moment” that was hyped up before hand, it’s a literal blink and you’ll miss it shot of him dancing with another man.
Beauty and the Beast ’17 expands upon its familiar fairy-tale world a little, attempting to add a little more clarification and modern touches, but for the most part ends up falling far short of the mark. One simply can’t view this as completely its own thing when it chases the original so much, actively inviting comparisons that it can’t live up to, recreating shots, editing, dialogue as well as visuals and songs. When they dance together in the ballroom to the title song, there’s just no magic there in this polished but disenchanting rehash. If I wished to show a movie of Beauty and the Beast to a child who’d never seen one before, I know I wouldn’t be picking this one.