Beauty and the Beast (2017)

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: A haughty prince, cursed with a beastly form and his servants transformed into household objects, gets one last chance at salvation when headstrong beauty Belle sacrifices her freedom to free her father Maurice. The Beast must earn Belle’s love to be released from the curse, but he’s a quick-tempered creature and the path to true love is very far from smooth.

Okay. I’ve got a lot to say, and you know what happens, so let’s dispense with the preamble and get stuck in, shall we?

Alright, quick recap: The beast is cursed because he can’t see beyond outward beauty, the enchantress gives him a symbolic rose, when the last petal falls he’s doomed to his beastly appearance (and his servants will be things) forever, if he can earn the love of another the curse will be broken, Maurice stumbles into the castle, Belle comes to find him and takes her father’s place, she gets to know the castle’s odd occupants but wants nothing to do with the Beast, and in the background the amorous Gaston is plotting to make Belle his wife by any means necessary.

You’ll gather from this that Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is telling pretty much the same tale as Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale’s animated version from 1991; and indeed, most of the story beats in both films are identical: Belle’s entrance, Gaston’s lodge, the encounter with the wolves, the warming of the relationship, the beautiful ballroom dance, and so on.

These moments are brought to the screen with spectacle and lavish detail; but how, the filmmakers must have thought, can we avoid remaking the impeccable original scene-for-scene? Their answer is to flesh out the backstory, swinging the tone firmly towards seriousness and melancholy, which to my mind is a fundamental miscalculation. Yes, events are portrayed with realism, but it’s at the expense of muting the comedy, drama and passions that were all abundant in the original.

The screenwriters and their 21st century sensibilities clearly felt icky about Belle – a strong, independent young woman (here more mistrusted proto-feminist than happy but yearning) – falling in love with her physically domineering and bad-tempered male captor. She can’t be happy with the Beast while she’s not free, a fairly direct reference to the idea that cartoon Belle was a victim of Stockholm Syndrome*.

And, of course, there have to be reasons for Belle and the Beast to come together. He’s well-read – she loves to read too! His mother died when he was a child – Belle’s mother died when she was even younger. These fully-detailed connections expand the movie’s running time to over two hours, a whopping 50% more than the animation, and to little benefit as far as I can see.

Trying to reason or justify why anyone falls in love is an immensely tricky business, yet I had no problem at all with the development of Belle and the Beast’s relationship in the 1991 film and didn’t require them to share common experiences to validate their emotions. Cartoon Belle was no less complete for failing to proactively kick against the pricks; cartoon Beast was no less pitiable – and was actually a whole lot scarier – without a sick mother and horrid father to explain him.

Anyway. The pitch ‘Beauty and The Beast – now with added plague!’ isn’t very appealing but sums up the tenor of the film perfectly. It looks gorgeous and feels incredibly worthy, but it’s not very much fun. Look at the first five minutes of the cartoon (after the wonderfully efficient prologue, that is): there are more jokes and laughs in the Belle sequence than in the whole of the live-action movie, and no amount of arch quipping from Lefou can compensate for the missing amusement of his cartoon counterpart. Maurice’s charming eccentricity is transmuted to a doleful, boring sadness, and ‘real’ Philippe gets no laughs at all.

There’s a greater crime too. The original film contained one of the great cinematic double acts in Cogsworth and Lumiere, the former’s stuffiness contrasting with the latter’s gung-ho attitude. They were lively, spirited, cute. For the update, Cogsworth is lumbering, immobile and virtually expressionless, and accordingly has much less of a role to play – Ian McKellen is just not right for the part and I dislike the impractical character model.

While Lumiere is better served – he can at least dance about, and Ewan McGregor sings Be Our Guest very nicely – it’s often difficult to see his face, and his accent is all over the place. In terms of the enchanted objects, it’s safe to say that I was not enchanted with them: despite the amazing effects work I missed having proper faces to look at, Chip being particularly unprepossessing.

And the humans/cursed ex-humans? Hmm. Emma Watson does a fair job playing Belle as a modern heroine, even if she rather underplays the role. The bad news is that her singing voice obviously had issues that required electronic tweaking, and those tweaks sound very odd, especially compared with her untreated co-stars. It’s unfortunate and distracting – where’s Marni Nixon when you need her? Dan Stevens is a cultured rather than angry Beast but not at all bad, Luke Evans is a tuneful if fairly unimposing Gaston, while Josh Gad is good fun, once you get used to the fact that his Lefou is no longer an unthinkingly loyal twerp but hopelessly in love (the ‘exclusively gay’ moment? Barely worth mentioning).

Staying with the positives, aside from the noteworthy performances and extraordinary visuals, the new songs are entirely passable; and in one specific instance the film’s melancholic bent works really well. When the servants succumb to their curse and their humanity (briefly) fades away, it’s a crushingly poignant moment. Regrettably, their transformations back to human form are not so well handled, a whirling camera fudging the process.

Overall, the best bits of this Beauty and The Beast are those that come directly from Linda Woolverton’s story and Menken and Ashman’s glorious original songs. I’ve already mentioned Be Our Guest, and both this and the title track are brought to the screen in great style. Yet – yet – I don’t know why anyone would swap the lovely animation of the ballroom scene for all the opulence here, or Angela Lansbury’s warm vocals for Emma Thompson’s. Similarly, I don’t know why you would choose to hear Watson singing instead of Paige O’Hara, Evans over Richard White or Stevens over Robbie Benson.

Ultimately, can this Beauty and the Beast be thought of as any kind of success**? I’m not sure, given that almost everything that’s good about it was already great in its predecessor, and all the advances are to do with technology rather than storytelling. It’s certainly worth a watch: it’s a work of high quality in many respects and may in time become a regular alternative to watching the 1991 version. But I doubt it, unless I feel (or want to feel) considerably more glum than usual. A decent film on its own merits, but why watch this when a wonderfully rendered, beautifully performed, much shorter and much, much, much more fun alternative is already out there?

*NOTE: I’ve never been troubled by the (admittedly pertinent) Stockholm Syndrome argument. My interpretation has always been that the Beast is emotionally done for as soon as Belle selflessly takes Maurice’s place in the jail (‘You would do that for him?’), so he’s hardly her captor at all; she has virtual liberty to wander around her prison and is demonstrably able to leave if she wants, though it’s intriguing to speculate how events might have unfolded during her escape had the wolves not turned up. But let’s not go on endlessly – the irony of an overlong review for this movie isn’t lost on me.

**Ask Disney’s financial department this question and they’ll blow smoke in your face from a huge cigar lit from flaming $100 bills, laughing all the while. Probably.

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