Well, here we are people, the moment has finally come for 26 years worth of nostalgia to flood back in to theatres and for the folks over at Disney to give yet another one of their beloved classics a modern re-imagination. Recent similar efforts have evoked mixed feelings for me, not liking 2015’s Cinderella but very much enjoying 2016’s The Jungle Book. For a kid born in 1989, though, Beauty And The Beast is a whole different kind of monster (pun intended). Alongside Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, the 1991 original animation sits atop the podium reserved for pictures that formed my entire love of cinema, specifically Disney, and the thought of a live action remake struck fear and dread in to my very soul. Willing to give it a chance, however, would my 2017 experience echo that of Cinderella or that of The Jungle Book?
I’m sorry to say that Beauty And The Beast very much falls in to my Cinderella pile. There is no point outlining the plot, every human being on earth knows it back to front, so I’ll just dive right in with my thoughts. As comparison piece to the original animation, this live action adaptation loses each battle it tries to forge. The ability to build a world using animation makes for a much more expansive, escapist aesthetic, and this kind of world building is very much missing in the remake. Belle’s (Emma Waston) ‘small provincial town’ looks exactly like what it is, a sound stage in a warehouse somewhere in Hollywood. Things get slightly better when we get to the castle scenes, but this time the problem lies not in the look of the sets but in the look of the characters. Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs Potts (Emma Thompson) and co. don’t possess half the charm of their 90s predecessors, with the focus on making the ornaments look as ‘authentic’ as possible limiting their opportunity for real expression.
There appears throughout the film to be a preoccupation by the filmmakers to provide a backstory for all of the central characters with origin stories, connections to villagers and such, and in attempting to expand the story’s mythology, the film becomes really rather bloated. From a tight 84 minutes in 1991 to a self indulgent 130 minutes in 2017, the picture loses most of the whirlwind fairytale magic that made it such an endearing and re-watchable adventure. A portion of this time is also taken up with the addition of some new musical numbers, none of which, I must admit, carry a torch to the, thankfully, shining moments in the film when the audience gets to hear the songs that made them fall in love with the production in the first place. Beast’s (Dan Stevens) added solo number, in particular, sounds like something that didn’t make the cut for Quasimodo in 1996’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.
Something that can’t really be ignored about this remake is the fact that the added element of live action makes the, what is essentially, beastiality love story just that little but more creepy for the audience to watch unfold. Though it can’t be said that the Beast created in the film looks entirely ‘real’, seeing Emma Watson’s eyes go doughy over the kindness of a, well, minotaur, feels a little more icky in this instance than it does from the comfort of complete animation.
I will admit to sneaking a few audio peeks at some of the soundtrack before seeing the film, and I was extremely apprehensive about the vocal capabilities of Emma Watson in the starring role. There is no doubt that her singing voice isn’t at powerhouse level, and there is definitely a degree of autotune that can be heard throughout, but what I was surprised by was how soon I got over the shortcomings and began to enjoy Watson’s characterisation. Through no fault of her own, Watson will always be seen as Hermione Granger no matter what she does, but her performance as Belle is actually one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film. Dan Stevens as the Beast always felt like a left field choice, and whilst he certainly boasts the classic Prince looks in his human scenes, he is tasked with the unenviable job of bringing to life a largely CGI character who has to try and fit in with the real sets around him. I like animated films and I like live actions films, but unless you are showing me penguins dancing with Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, I am yet to be convinced that the two formats can really work effectively together.
As for the supporting cast, the list of names is too plentiful to fully explore, but the likes of Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen do solid voice work, even if their animated characters fail to spark maximum charm. The star of the show in my eyes is Luke Evans as Gaston. With bravado, swagger and ego for days, Evans is quite brilliant in the role and is one of the only cast members with a musical number who you can really say has the pipes to carry it.
A quick word on Josh Gad’s LeFou. As for the ‘controversy’ about LeFou being the first openly gay Disney character, all I’ll say is that I’ve seen gayer ‘straight’ characters in movies before. I refute the celebration of LeFou as an ‘openly gay character’ when the bulk of his punchlines pertain to the fact that he is closeted. Aside from my views on that particular point, Gad is actually very good as Gaston’s downtrodden sidekick, in fact the pair of them are probably the best part of the entire film, with the Gaston and Mob Song numbers being more enjoyable, in my opinion, than some of the more iconic tunes like Be Our Guest.
Overall, it’s safe to say that I did not have a particularly positive reaction to this new Beauty And The Beast. I am fully aware that the tone of this review and overall reaction I had to the film is inexorably linked to my undying love for the 1991 original. Some people can be objective, I, unfortunately, cannot. The main thing to take away here is that it isn’t bad, it definitely isn’t bad, it’s just completely average. Which leads me to ponder, why would any film lover choose to watch an average version of a particular fairytale when they can access another version, made only two decades ago, that is about as close to animated feature film perfection as you can get? See this to satisfy your curiosity, but trust me, you’ll always go back to 1991.