"Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme..."
Unlike recent Disney live action remakes, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ struck me as an oddity. With ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Jungle Book’ it felt as if they had places to go beyond their animated counterparts and could expand the stories to add more depth and intrigue. The 1991 version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ however is utterly perfect, and frankly I can’t imagine a live action version of it ever being an improvement, and I was right.
Belle (Emma Watson), a bright, beautiful and independent young woman, is taken prisoner by a beast (Dan Stevens) in its castle. Despite her fears, she befriends the castle's enchanted staff and learns to look beyond the beast's hideous exterior, allowing her to recognize the kind heart and soul of the true prince that hides on the inside.
The annoying thing about this remake is that I’m a big fan of almost everyone involved in it. Despite directing two instalments of the ‘Twilight’ franchise (though in fairness they were the best two, even if picking the best ‘Twilight’ movie is the equivalent of picking the least sufferable form of torture) he has also helmed ‘Gods and Monsters’, ‘Dreamgirls’ and ‘Mr Holmes’. Then there is the cast which is superb on every level, from their choice of leads in Emma Watson and Dan Stevens to the many great supporting roles of Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan, Josh Gad and Emma Thompson.
But sadly none of this translates into a worthwhile movie. When looking at any remake one has to ask “How does this add to the original?” and when it comes to ‘Beauty and the Beast’ the answer is very little. If anything it actually made me appreciate the mastery of the original more. The nuances of the characters, the watertight pacing, believable motivations and heartfelt story, these are just some of the many aspects that seem to be missing from this remake.
I understand that at a certain point I do have to accept that this film should be treated as its own entity and not constantly compared with the animated version. But that is a difficult thing to do given that the movie feels the need to constantly remind you of the original. Clearly it wants to target people who remember seeing the original and wants to evoke their nostalgia for it, which is all well and good but none of these call backs feel motivated or fit within this context of the film. Aside from being a nearly shot by shot remake of the animated version the 2017 ‘Beauty and the Beast’ tries so desperately to mimic the visual cues of the original that it forgets to integrate them into the story.
I think this problem is best summarised within one specific scene. The famous ballroom scene from the 1991 version not only feels like an iconic scene in its own right, but in the context of the film it represents and change in Belle and the Beats relationship. It shows a mutual bond and growing trust they have for one another. Before I gush anymore about it now I’ll turn to the remake, which recreates this scene purely as a way to recall the original. It does not feel like they have earned that moment in the story or the emotions of the characters. While the sequence itself is impressive on a technical level I could never escape the feeling that it was just a lesser imitation of the original.
But that is a problem that plays into the larger aspects of the love story of this version. The sad fact is that Watson and Stevens don’t seem to share that much chemistry, at least not enough to make me feel invested in their story. The romance itself is decently developed and paced so it at least feels like there is an actual transition to their relationship, but neither role is expressive enough for me to pick up on their ever changing feelings for one another. From a narrative standpoint the movie loses focus on a lot of occasions. There are a few too many subplots that go nowhere, attention given to characters that doesn’t add to the story and far too much attention given to irrelevant details. Fleshing out your world is a good move when it comes to fantasy tales, but not when they don’t serve the characters or the story in any way.
Believe me I did not want to walk away feeling this unfulfilled, as I said I was a huge fan of the ensemble cast and to their credit they are all excellent. In their voice roles the likes of McGregor and McKellan are superb, and Luke Evans’ sheer charisma makes Gaston a standout as well as Kevin Kline bringing an added dimension Belle’s father. Watson and Stevens are serviceable as the leads but dare I say Watson can’t quite hold the tune as well I would have liked. What makes it worse is that actors who aren’t necessarily the best signers have made musical numbers work out of their own charisma and knowing how the song should inform the characters (just look at Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in ‘La La Land’ or Dwayne Johnson in ‘Moana’).
Despite boasting a lot of potential, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ remains little more than a pale imitation of the original masterpiece from Disney.