Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson
Runtime: 129 Minutes
Disney’s set course for remakes have delivered on interesting entries which remake or reimagine some of their lesser or flawed animated entries of the past, but tackling anything from the Disney Renaissance was going to be a challenge for audiences and filmmakers to stomach, with 1991’s Beauty & the Beast facing the controversial treatment first.
The key to the film’s success lies in story and character work, and by not straying far from the blueprint of the original film it was never likely to go too far wrong. The truth of the production lies in the fact that it’s difficult to perfect what is already perfect without taking away from its accomplishments. Everything that was great and worked with the original film is still present and accounted for, only now there’s more of it. Much of the new that this version brings are embellishments of already established elements of the narrative and characters, further fleshing out of the back stories and personalities, and added explanation for some of the more lenient fantasy components - even if they add to the film's exceeded bloat.
For instance, Belle (Emma Watson) is a far more overtly feminist and progressively minded individual in this version, as to play up to a rather terrific piece of stunt casting. The back stories for both her and the Beast (Dan Stevens) have been elaborated to have them products of motherless upbringings, both brought up by their fathers in divergent paths. But the Beast is far less of an animalistic brute here, instead he's a highly educated (if flippant and petulant) individual with an extensive knowledge of world and literature, and someone who Belle may find greater solace in. The story is still a great rallying cry for literacy and imagination in the face of intolerance. Gaston (Luke Evans) is a narcissistic former soldier who feels entitled to his lot in life, and even LeFou (Josh Gad) has some further characteristic flourish.
The cast appears to be well chosen, with many of the men of the cast excelling beyond their duties. Stevens gives a brilliant performance as the Beast that shines through underneath the middling CGI used to render him. Evans is a menacing and surprisingly human presence who plays well off a playful Josh Gad, while Kevin Kline as Belle’s father Maurice quietly harbours the films beating heart. Emma Watson is expectedly magnificent as Belle, even if her vocal performance in the musical numbers isn’t quite as strong as it probably should be.
From the voiceover cast of magical household objects, Ewan McGregor somehow manages to make his admittedly wonky French accent shine as Lumière, Ian McKellen is wonderfully fussy as Cogsworth, and Stanley Tucci and Gugu Mbatha-Raw make the most of their more maligned roles. The real shock is that while Emma Thompson might make sense on paper for the homely Mrs Potts, it’s an incredibly misjudged and exaggerated performance that aims for Angela Lansbury but comes across more Dick Van Dyke, with her musical vocals screeching through songs and effectively robbing the famous ballroom dance of all its grandeur.
The worst thing to be said about the film is that the production itself is nothing unique at all. Bill Condon’s general direction is strong, but the staging and production values of the film are so blatantly artificial and badly lit that nothing in the film ever feels like anything more than a set. From the occasional overkill of middling CGI work and first draft character designs, to obvious green screen and sound stage dressing, the synthetic environments never feel as cinematic as they should do. There are also some unnecessary plot detours that could be easily excised and only exist to drag out the film's runtime.
And yet, for all its bloated shortcomings and average choices, this is still very likely to win many people over. It’s hard not to get swept up in it all once the music starts and the characters take the screen. Alan Menken’s score is still extraordinary and his new recordings are sumptuous. The late Howard Ashman’s lyrics are still resonant and powerful, with a few new additions to the production including a Meat Loaf style number for the Beast.
Be it for the sake of nostalgia, curiosity or an entirely new audience, Beauty & the Beast somehow still manages to hold onto the magic and emotion of its story and characters. It’s excessive and unremarkable as a creation, but still a fun and enjoyable adventure.