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The new Disney live-action rendition of Beauty and the Beast is a movie that almost justifies its own reason for retelling on the big screen. Initially, the recreations of the familiar pieces from the animated 1991 film are so slavish that they simply create déjà vu and unfavorable comparisons to the original. However, with a few improvements along the way, this latest version ultimately finds and lets the charm and durability of the story shine through.
I will say straight up that the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast has been my personal favorite Disney animated film. Unlike many of the other Disney animated films, including Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin that seem to have two people falling for each other practically overnight, Beauty and the Beast takes its time in allowing Belle and the Beast get to know each another and embrace each other’s inner beauty. The movie also courageously twists the Disney trope of the dashing, pompous prince character by making Gaston into an outright villain. Above all, it has the perhaps the most memorable songs of any single Disney film, rendered beautifully by composer Alan Menken.
When this 2017 version re-renders the first of these songs, “Belle,” the words, workmanlike and dutiful kept running through my mind to describe the direction and choreography. It checks off the the scene’s familiar visual and musical notes revealing that Belle (Emma Watson) is a voracious reader at a time when not many women were well-educated, and therefore peculiar. Unfortunately, it does it so slavishly that it plays more like a live-action street parade of Disney characters rather than an organic scene.
To be fair, there are a few story points here and there that are more fleshed out. The back story of the Beast (Dan Stevens) on how he turned that way from being a narcissistic prince is one and another is how Belle’s father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) in this one not only breaks into the Beast’s palace but trying to steal a rose for his daughter. I also liked one addition where Belle tries to show a young girl in the village how to read while doing her laundry. Crucially, Belle’s choice to be held captive in the palace instead of her father is her own unilateral decision this time.
To be fair, there are a few story points here and there that are more fleshed out. The back story of the curse that turns the narcissistic prince into the Beast (Dan Stevens) is one (including a proper personification of the enchantress played by Hattie Morahan) and another is how Belle’s father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) in this one not only breaks into the Beast’s palace but trying to steal a rose for his daughter. I also liked one addition where Belle tries to show a young girl in the village to read while doing her laundry. Crucially, Belle’s choice to be held captive in the palace instead of her father is her own unilateral decision this time.
Thankfully, when it gets to the scene when Belle gets away and is attacked by wolves in the forest, but eventually saved by the Beast, Condon and the filmmakers seem to find their footing. It is a turning point in the interaction between the two leads, and when the film arrives at this point when they start respecting each other and eventually fall for each other, it turns around as well. The scenes between Belle and the Beast are allowed to play out longer and the musical scene in which Belle finds out about the Beast’s past is beautifully rendered. There is also a good, understated musical number added for the Beast when he lets Belle go to tend to her father in need.
One good thing about Disney’s recent iteration to turn their animated films into live-action versions is seeing accomplished and veteran actors take on the classic animated roles, aided by impressive motion capture work. This is true here with the prince’s servant characters that are antiques. Emma Thompson is a great trade for Angela Lansbury in playing Mrs. Potts and singing the titular song, “Beauty and the Beast” during the ballroom dancing scene. Ian McKellen, a regular in Condon’s films, and Ewan McGregor, donning a French accent, create a nice banter as Cogsworth and Lumiere, respectively. It is also welcome to see Kevin Kline lend his gravity to Maurice and Josh Gad finds relish in playing the expanded part of LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick.
As the leads, Emma Watson and Dan Stevens acquit themselves well. That Watson is not as expressive as she could be in the first half and Stevens is not as menacing as he could be is not necessarily their fault (and anyone who has seen Stevens in the 2014 thriller, The Guest will know he can play truly menacing). Once the direction and editing get out of their way after the first half, their genial and romantic chemistry comes through as they talk about books and their backgrounds and dance during the ballroom scene.
So does this movie fully convince me that Disney should keep going through their animated vault to turn their films into live-action versions? Quite frankly, no, as I personally felt that even 2016’s The Jungle Book did not work and was way overrated and 2015’s Cinderella was just passable. However, I am glad that the filmmakers were able to re-capture some of the magic of the original story anyway and, for the majority of it, show enough care to the story to respect it.
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