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Beauty and the Beast (2017)

I’ve had so many conflicting feelings about this one ever since it was first announced. I mean, Disney has been on a live-action remake kick for a while now, with results that have so far ranged from mediocre to surprisingly good. So of course Disney was going to try and remake one of their most beloved classics.

But that’s just it. Beauty and the Beast (1991) came out 25 years ago and it still holds up beautifully. Where’s the need for a remake?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that this is easily my favorite Disney film, or at least the one that’s closest to me personally. Growing up in the Disney Renaissance of the ’90s, this movie and its soundtrack were central to my childhood. Plus, working as stage manager for my high school production of the show was such a huge part of my senior year that I still think about it often over ten years later. Last but not least, Belle is easily the Disney Princess by which all others are measured; not only one of the most proactive, but also the most effective combination of beauty, brains, and spirit.

And Disney gave this remake to Bill Condon, who’s basically the David Yates of the Twilight franchise. How could this possibly have happened? How could anyone think it was a good idea to trust Condon with this beloved fantasy romance about a beautiful young woman who falls in love with a monster in a morally questionable story and I just answered my own question, didn’t I?

And by the way, when I talk about “morally questionable”, I’m not talking about the bestiality thing. That doesn’t count in a story about how true beauty is deeper than skin, especially when what’s underneath the skin is a prince who turns back into a human. It’s not like Belle falls out of love with the Beast when he loses the fur, is all I’m saying.

And I’m not talking about the Stockholm Syndrome thing either. Remember, when Belle is finally given the chance to leave the castle with no strings attached, she leaves. And there’s no sign of when or if she would have returned if the castle and its inhabitants weren’t put in mortal peril. That doesn’t fit the Stockholm Syndrome profile at all.

No, I’m talking about the central notion of “you can change him.” A core part of the premise is the notion that if a man (or a woman, let’s be fair) is emotionally cruel and physically abusive, all it takes is the right romantic partner to fix them. This harmful delusion that toxic people and toxic relationships will work out if only those involved simply hang in there and try to love each other more. Much as I love the movie, that part of it is definitely questionable at the very least.

Yet it must be remembered that some of Disney’s live-action remakes have turned out quite well, and I remained hopeful that Beauty and the Beast (2017) could modernize the story in some surprising way. In retrospect, it turns out that The Jungle Book (2016) should have adjusted my expectations.

To be clear, Beauty and the Beast (2017) is the superior film, if only because these filmmakers didn’t mess with the story for the sake of a franchise. More importantly, the whole film has a distinctly magical feel to it, with dazzling visuals and phenomenal production design. In particular, the ballroom scene and the “Be Our Guest” number — easily the two most iconic scenes in the animated film — look utterly astounding here. Unlike the shark-jumping tonal shifts of Jungle Book (2016), there’s never any doubt that these filmmakers were thoroughly committed to a wondrous fairy tale production from start to finish. Granted, the CGI falls well short of realism, but this is definitely one time when realism is a secondary concern at best.

That said, it’s a mercy that the film is short on action, because what we get of that is sadly uneven. The climactic castle fight is entertaining enough, aside from the unremarkable showdown between Beast and Gaston. Also, Phillipe the horse gets a big hero moment early on, cut together in a way that looks pathetic.

Naturally, there are scenes and story beats lifted directly from the original film. But then we have Maurice’s entrance into the castle, in which we see him treated to food and warmth until he’s imprisoned for trying to steal a rose. That’s not how it played out in the animated film, of course, but at least it has some basis in the original classic fairy tale.

Yet those changes are fairly innocuous compared to the radically different way that Maurice’s return to the village plays out. Or the entirely new character (Maestro Cadenza, played by Stanley Tucci) wedded to the opera-singer-turned-wardrobe. And don’t even get me started on the book that can magically teleport the Beast to anywhere in the world. No, I swear to Walt I’m not kidding.

Some other changes introduce plot threads for no conceivable reason. The film goes into detail about the Prince’s upbringing, and there’s a scene to address what happened to Belle’s mother. These details were neither wanted nor needed, and the plot threads don’t go anywhere worthwhile, so it all falls flat.

Yet there are some changes made to directly address certain nagging plot threads. Where did the Prince’s money come from, and what was he prince of, anyway? Where are his subjects? Why doesn’t anyone know anything about this huge castle, why is it out in the middle of nowhere, and why does nobody worry about all the people trapped inside? The answer to these questions is kind of a lazy hand-wave, but it works well enough and it leads to a cute little payoff at the end.

Speaking of third-act twists, there’s a new one that’s pathetically obvious and telegraphed very far in advance. But the tradeoff is that because we know the twist is coming, and we know that everything will end happily, the film has liberty to go to some really dark places before that happy ending comes. And the filmmakers take that liberty with a new scene, showing us something I’m surprised and astounded the filmmakers had the guts to put on film.

Moving on to the cast. Emma Watson looks like she’s barely even trying, but then, she barely has to. Belle is such a great character and Watson is such a blindingly obvious choice that she doesn’t really have to do much except show up. She also gets a neat little added scene in which she’s chewed out for teaching a girl to read, so there’s that.

As for Dan Stevens, he appears to be playing and voicing the Beast in imitation of Tim Curry. An interesting idea on paper, but in practice, you don’t want to go inviting comparisons to such a singular presence as Tim Fucking Curry. That said, his chemistry with Watson is on point — no easy feat for either of them, given the volume of CGI involved.

To no one’s surprise, their shared status as social outcasts is a huge factor in the romance between these two characters. But more than that, Beast has been shut inside his own castle for so long that he’s lost all interest in his servants and his surroundings. Only when Belle comes in can he see his castle with fresh eyes and appreciate that he lives in a huge sprawling fairy tale palace. So he starts to lighten up, which endears him to Belle, and she starts to have more fun in a castle that gets less dusty because she’s around, and it’s a sweet little feedback loop that serves the romance beautifully.

Then of course we have the mammoth supporting cast. Let’s start with Ewan McGregor. I love the guy, and he’s clearly putting all of his incredible charisma toward playing Lumiere, casting a Scotsman to play a French accent was a terrible, terrible mistake. Seriously, where the hell is Jean Dujardin when you need him?!

Opposite him is Ian McKellan as Cogsworth, and that casting choice is every bit as perfect as it looks on paper. Yet this is probably the one time in the entire cast when the character design didn’t work for me. Something about hearing McKellan’s booming voice coming out of that face never looked quite right.

Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts is another fine choice on paper, but her vocal chops simply weren’t strong enough to sell the Angela Lansbury impression she was apparently going for. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is once again utterly wasted. Audra McDonald and Stanley Tucci both seem to be having fun chewing scenery as the opera-singing wardrobe and her harpsichord husband, respectively. Nathan Mack was charming enough in the role of Chip.

Then we have Kevin Kline, here playing Maurice. The character is immediately sympathetic and he instantly sells his relationship with Belle, both of which are of course integral to the story. It’s a fantastic performance… that belongs in a different movie entirely.

Consider: In the animated film, Maurice comes out with this goofy-looking contraption on his head and says “My daughter, odd? Where would you get an idea like that?” The joke works because he doesn’t know — or perhaps doesn’t care — how strange he looks in the moment. But here, the exact same line falls flat because it’s delivered straight and without any sight gags. Another key example comes when Maurice comes storming the bar, begging for help to save his daughter from the hideous beast. Kline plays the scene in such a way that Maurice is clearly concerned for his daughter, but the over-the-top hysteria is entirely gone. As a direct result, the whole “everyone thinks Maurice has gone insane” subplot falls apart. The Disney version of this story depends on an eccentric and overactive Maurice, while Kline is trying to deliver a more grounded and understated Maurice — while both approaches are equally valid, they cancel each other out.

Moving on… *heavy sigh* LeFou. Where do I even start?

First of all, I’ve gone on record multiple times stating that I’m not a fan of Josh Gad. Never have been, don’t know if I ever will be. Ever since his brief stint as one of the least talented and unfunniest Daily Show correspondents ever, I’ve been struggling to figure out what keeps his career going. It’s like he’s a poor man’s Kevin James, for those who don’t want the brain-dead humor but can’t afford the energy or the stunt work. Sorry, folks, but I just don’t get it.

Then of course we have LeFou himself. A thoroughly useless character whose sole purpose is sucking up to Gaston and contributes nothing to the plot. Luckily, this much at least is changed in the remake. And no, I’m not talking about how Disney chose to make its first openly gay character a useless toady sidekick to the villain. Politics aside, that decision has absolutely no impact on the film proper.

No, what’s notable about LeFou is that he actually serves as Gaston’s ineffectual conscience in this film. It’s LeFou who drops hints to Gaston, either implying or flat-out telling him that chasing after Belle isn’t going to work. It’s LeFou who tells Gaston that his acts of violence are going too far. Yet he stops just short of actually doing anything, like actively crossing Gaston or telling anyone else what’s going on. Thus Gaston is made a more effective villain, out to pursue his own needs and desires over the point-blank objections from his best friend. It’s a neat move.

This brings me to Luke Evans as Gaston, the undisputed MVP of the supporting cast. Because Gaston — the handsome and brave huntsman — would be the hero in any other story, this character needed someone who could be the hero just as easily as the villain. Someone who could go from comedic to terrifying and back on a dime. Luke Evans can handle all of that like precious few other actors of his age, and he’s got quite a singing voice as well.

…Oh, right. The music.

Cinderella (2015) is still my favorite of the live-action Disney remakes so far, and I think that’s in large part because it resisted the temptation to recycle the songs from the animated film. These songs — especially in the case of Beauty and the Beast (1991) — are so iconic, so deeply ingrained in the social consciousness, and so strongly identified with their source films, that it’s impossible for a film to stand on its own while using them. No matter how well the songs are presented or what else is different about the movies themselves, there’s no way they’re not going to conjure memories of the animated films.

Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing… if that’s what the filmmakers are going for. For comparison’s sake, consider the stage musical version of Beauty and the Beast (1991). Aside from a few slight changes to accommodate the differences between film and live theatre, it was clearly understood that the stage version was a new presentation of the exact same story. It was the film put to stage as faithfully as possible. Here, however, there are too many changes to be the animated film converted to live-action, and not enough changes that the film stands on its own merit.

This is most plainly obvious in the case of the soundtrack. In addition to several of the old 1991 favorites, this film also includes several new songs from Alan Menken. But I’m sorry, regardless of whether all the songs were written by the same guy, the new stuff will never stand on its own when it’s mixed in with the stuff we’ve already come to know and love over the past 25 years.

Again, this isn’t unprecedented, as Alan Menken wrote plenty of new songs for the Broadway musical. And again, that wasn’t so much of a problem because everybody understood that the Broadway soundtrack was only ever an extension of the original soundtrack and not its own thing. Moreover, the songs from the Broadway musical were so much more entertaining and fit so much more easily with the established canon. To wit: Compare the bouncy and uplifting “Human Again” with the bland and dreary “Days in the Sun“. Likewise, “If I Can’t Love Her” worked with the established marterial in a way that “Evermore” doesn’t. It’s not like the new stuff would necessarily be problematic if it was part of a whole new soundtrack, but bundle it in with the old stuff hoping that nobody notices and the whole package falls apart.

Ultimately, I give Beauty and the Beast (2017) the same verdict I gave The Jungle Book (2016): The filmmakers had everything they needed to either make a straight live-action rendition of the animated favorite or a completely new telling of the classic fable, but they tried to do both and succeeded at neither. It changes too much to be a faithful adaptation of the animated film, and it leans too heavily on the established material to work as its own thing.

Obviously, the film is not without merit — anything with this much effort put into it will be beautiful to watch, if nothing else. Plus, the film does a fine job with the central romance and the magical atmosphere, easily the two most imperative factors in any telling of this story. Yet even when the film is at its best, it doesn’t offer anything that the 1991 film or the Broadway musical didn’t already do better. And the filmmakers were foolish to invite such comparisons.

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