First there was Disney’s 1991 animated feature Beauty and the Beast, which is one of the most perfect movies ever and helped kickstart the Disney renaissance and completely holds up even now, a quarter of a century later. But the other thing it helped kickstart was Princess Madness, the license to print money that Disney stumbled upon back then. So in 2002 we got a cashing-in IMAX version of Beauty and the Beast, and it was still glorious in spite of the mercenary motive. And in 2012 we got a cashing-in 3D version of Beauty and the Beast, and it was entirely superfluous but it was a way to see the film on a big screen again, so it was still glorious anyway. But now Disney has run out of ways to rejigger one of its classics (though just you wait until the 2042 VR rerelease of the movie in which you will be able to feel Gaston’s muscles and burn yourself on Lumière’s flames and actually try the gray stuff and discover for yourself how delicious it is), so now we’ve come to the live-action remake.
Of course, Beauty and the Beast has not been singled out for a live-action remake: Disney is live-action-remaking all of its animated movies, because they can and you can’t stop them and Disney knows how difficult it is for parents to resist children screaming that they wanna see whatever movie is currently receiving saturation marketing. This campaign of Disney’s has so far been a mixed bag creatively: 2015’s Cinderella was a facepalm-inducing reminder that “fairy tales” about women aspiring to be pretty doormats need to die. But 2016’s Jungle Book was a triumph, even though, ironically, it was still mostly animated, this time with CGI instead of pen-and-ink.
So perhaps it’s extra ironic that this new “live-action” Beauty and the Beast is also mostly still animated and yet, unlike Jungle Book, doesn’t quite work. All the charm and the wit of the hand-drawn Lumière and Cogsworth — the royal servants magically transformed into, respectively, a candlestick and a clock — is leeched away in their new CGI versions: somehow, an attempt to make them look more realistic, or at least as realistic as a man turned into a candlestick can be, has made them less believable. (I generally love Ewan McGregor [Our Kind of Traitor, Jane Got a Gun], who provides Lumière’s voice here, but he struggles with the French accent and, well, cannot hold a candle to the original Lumière, Jerry Orbach.) The Beast is also still wholly animated, a motion-captured and CGI’d Dan Stevens (A Walk Among the Tombstones, The Guest), and he looks like a cartoon, and far less beastly, in fact, than his actual-cartoon 1991 counterpart; this is a step back in mo-cap plausibility. There is some sort of irony in the 1991’s Cogsworth’s joke, “If it’s not baroque, don’t fix it” (of the castle he lives and works in) being eliminated from the script here while all around him, the castle sets are drenched in baroque flourishes that only make for an overly busy scene, not a particularly interesting one. (It’s too damn dark in the castle scenes for the backdrops to be much more than muddy blurs anyway, so all good? *sigh*) Even Belle’s village is an exaggerated and almost fantastical idea of rural Frenchness, and more like something you’d see in Epcot Center than a supposedly realistic place.
Everything about this Beauty and the Beast feels like a theme-park mounting of the 1991 cartoon, or — God forbid — one of those on-ice spectacles: it’s a watered-down pastiche of itself. It’s very much like the blandified pop versions of the enchanting signature character tunes we typically get over the end credits of animated movies: overproduced and underwhelming; manufactured, flavorless, and personality-free. Kiddies will be thrilled, I’m sure, and appropriately distracted (though at a runtime of over two hours, it may try the patience of the very youngest), but that’s a low bar when Disney, in 1991, set the bar so high for itself.
Even the bar for more progressive Disney princesses is a lot higher now than it was in 1991. Belle here is still bookish, still dreams of “adventure in the great wide somewhere” (though she still does not get it; that would have been a great reason to revisit her story), and still is no pushover even in the face of the cold and cruel Beast; this was radical a quarter of a century ago, but not so much today. This new Belle has a taste for inventing — she comes up with a clever donkey-powered clothes-washing contraption — which is a nice touch but doesn’t change the fact that her story remains all about romance, and rescuing a man from himself. (Emma Watson [Noah, This Is the End] as Belle is perfectly fine, if rather uninspired: she doesn’t have much room to bring anything new to the character, and she doesn’t try. I’m sad, too, that Hermione Granger has been demoted to a Disney princess.)
Weirdly, the new script doubles down on Disney’s longstanding problem with absent mothers: the new backstory about how both Belle and the Beast lost their mothers adds absolutely nothing to the tale… unless it’s deliberately intended to suggest that girls who lose their mothers in childhood do just fine — Belle is clearly a lovely and well-adjusted person — but boys who lose their mothers in childhood turn into monsters, as the Prince was even before he was transformed into the Beast. The 1991 Beauty and the Beast just about skirts around some very problematic gender issues, narrowly avoiding (if you squint at it just right) endorsing Stockholm syndrome as a romantic strategy for men, and this updating manages that as well. But this new film cannot evade, as its progenitor did, the bullshit implication that it is actually the job of women to tame beastly men. (The new script is by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos [The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Hercules]. Maybe Disney should have asked a couple of women to update it.)
The few new songs here — certainly inserted for no reason other than Oscar eligibility, since only new songs may be nominated — are insipid, on-the-nose things that suffer in comparison to Howard Ashman’s literate and witty lyrics and Alan Menken’s music for the original batch of tunes. (Some of those lyrics have been changed, most notably in villain Gaston’s signature song. I wish I could see any reason why that was deemed necessary. “And every last inch of me’s covered with hair” is funny. And it’s gone here.) Even the most effective sequence, Gaston’s (Luke Evans: The Girl on the Train, High-Rise) rallying of the village to storm the Beast’s castle in “The Mob Song,” which still retains much of its original power, is eventually undercut by a new addition to the story that apparently changes the villagers’ motivation from general human smallmindedness and fear of the unknown into something more specific, less universal.
(Oh, and the “gay character”? Pure ridiculousness to make a fuss about it: it’s nothing more than a glance or three and a couple of moues to lend a subtle subtext to a line of dialogue; it couldn’t be more underplayed. Though I am genuinely annoyed that the film makes the mistake of mixing up crossdressing with homosexuality. Everyone knows — or should — that just because a man likes to dress in women’s clothing doesn’t mean he’s gay, and just because a man is gay doesn’t mean he likes to dress in women’s clothing.)
As with the live-action Cinderella, there is some stuff to like here, even if the whole package is a disappointment. Kevin Kline (Ricki and the Flash, My Old Lady) as Belle’s father, Maurice, is as engaging as he always is. Josh Gad (The Angry Birds Movie, Pixels) as Gaston’s sidekick LeFou steals every scene he’s in by embracing the over-the-topness that everyone else is ignoring. Mostly, though, this is an unfortunate example of the fact that what works in a cartoon doesn’t necessarily work in live-action. Here, I never believed that a beauty fell in love with a beast, even given the expectation that such a thing isn’t supposed to be extraordinary.