Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans
Director: Bill Condon
Running Time: 129 mins
Synopsis: A live-action retelling of the 1991 Disney animation, centring on young Belle (Watson) in a French village who goes in search of her missing father. Finding him locked up in a mysterious castle she comes upon a hideous Beast (Stevens), and switches herself for her father. Kept as the monster’s prisoner she could be the key to breaking the spell placed on the Beast, one which requires them to fall in love before the last rose petal falls.
It was perhaps inevitable that Disney would turn to their extensive back catalogue for film inspiration. Brand recognition and audience familiarity (golden gooses in blockbuster cinema) are present and correct. However it was somewhat surprising and heartening that the first of these digs into the past would be Maleficent. A sideways glance at the Sleeping Beauty tale told through the eyes of the chief villain. It offered hope that Disney would not simply churn out the same stories with human performers but maybe find creative interesting spins on the material. Although not wholly successful it was a solid start, but unfortunately Disney did not hold out the originality for long. Cinderella followed, was impeccably designed and keenly acted but ultimately dramatically flat, offering nothing extra to the well-told tale. The Jungle Book felt familiar still but marked itself out from the pack with its groundbreaking VFX work and subtle changes to the 1960s original. Turning to their most popular film, and part of the large Disney renaissance in the early 90s, Beauty and the Beast actually started out as less of a re-do than an alternate version of the source novel without the music. Once Dreamgirls director Bill Condon was brought in, though, the film became a more straight-laced adaptation, with the results falling somewhere between success and artistic drabness.
You all know the tale, so I will not repeat it here, but Condon uses the larger runtime (the original is a scant 90mins long) right off the bat with a fleshed out prologue showcasing the arrogant Prince at the heart of the story. It is immediately noticeable that this is going to be one incredibly designed film, the costumes are extravagant, the sets tangible and the hair is large! Amidst all this is Dan Stevens as the Prince, managing to convey his arrogance and pride with little dialogue, succumbing to the admittedly rather harsh curse the witch places upon him and his castle. The film plays all this very broad, no subtlety is found here. But it is an immediate opening and sweeps you up effectively enough to start things off strong.
Everything else you need to know about the film is showcased in the first musical number, the winning delightfully happy Belle. Emma Watson certainly has the singing chops, not quite West-End quality but harmonious and warm, and captures the bookworm independent spirit endearingly. Although she is by necessity with such interesting surrounding characters oddly flat as a whole. Disappearing into the background in her own film, and never feeling truly rounded as a believable person. As the opening number plays out though you’ll be too lost in the terrific choreography and large scale setting to really take notice. Original composer Alan Menken returns to score here and delivers simple additions to boost up the song length.
As per the 2D version, into all this colourful musicality steps the brutish idiotic Gaston, played here by Luke Evans. By far the strongest aspect of this new iteration, he is clearly having huge fun, magnifying the doltish arrogance with scene chewing glee. His own song is a triumph of witty set play, immensely talented performers and detailed choreography. Unlike the signature Be our Guest song which is marred by far too much garish VFX, it favours the simplicity of good theatricality. By his side, as in the cartoon, is loyal Le Fou. Josh Gad plays him with less buffoonery than that version, instead opting for sly digs at his handsome friend’s stupidity. Much has been made of Le Fou’s added homosexuality in this version, and it is very much a non-issue here. Perhaps a little full-on in the opening number, as mentioned no subtlety here, it becomes a minor background detail in later events. Gad is an always energetic presence and maintains a humorous chemistry with Evans throughout.
Belle ends on a triumphant note and the hairs are prickled but apart from the minor additions, there are no surprises to be found. This is endemic of the entire film, it is made with love, care and huge affection for the source material but cannot do enough to justify its existence. An added side-plot around Belle’s deceased mother, boosted by a heartfelt Kevin Kline (good to see him back on screen) as Maurice, is moving but ultimately unnecessary. Used primarily to add extra layers to her connection to the Beast (he also suffers from parental strife) it actually works to undermine the central simplicity of their courtship. The power of their eventual love is the ability to look past surface opinions, why feel the need to shoehorn in a family angle for any other reason than length?!
Said Beast is one aspect this adaptation does give some added heft to. Stevens gives a perceptible pain to the eyes of the creature, and creates a far more well-rounded character than in the animated version. His solo song is also the best new tune (the others are decent but wholly forgettable), a soulful lament to a lost love. The decision to go fully CGI with him is a mixed bag, some moments work wonders whilst others are far too noticeably fake. This also goes for the numerous objects around the castle that are cursed to no longer be human. Condon has made the not always successful decision to realise them as actual objects but with added eyes and mouths. It is initially disconcerting but thanks to the winning voice performances most of those early concerns are alleviated. Those voices are a bevy of large talents, Ian McKellen’s booming voice giving character to the obstreperous Cogsworth, Stanley Tucci hamming up a storm as an eccentric Harpsichord (a new character) although Ewan McGregor walks home with his energetic Lumiere. Doubts around his oddly accented French tone from the early trailers subside with one that sounds completely spot on (helped by some late in the day re-recording). Emma Thompson is the only weak link here, giving her Mrs Potts a far too over mannered English accent. At least her version of the title song manages to elicit suitable heart.
It cannot be stressed enough that Beauty and the Beast is one damn fine looking film, I actually found myself swooning over some of the costume work. There is keen craft surrounding every aspect of it, and when a film plays itself with such broad affection for its source material you cannot help but be swept up. It certainly helps that the story is one for the ages. However at no point can you feel yourself arguing for its existence. This is the inevitable struggle Disney faces with the many many live-action versions they have in the pipeline (Aladdin and Mulan are up next), how to create something that sticks to the heart of what fans appreciated about the original but also how to offer a fresh perspective. In just offering the film you’ve already seen before only with real people and minor extras is not enough. I left feeling a strange emptiness.
Verdict: The songs still work, it is gorgeous to look at, and acted with skill, but the needless added material triggers a bloat and there is a distinct whiff of corporate fingerprints.