Beauty and the Beast is a faithful, entertaining, yet deeply flawed live-action remake of the Disney classic that highlights some of the fundamental problems of the original story and introduces a few of its own along the way.
There’s no getting away from the fact that the central storyline is a bit, well, icky: Girl meets monster; monster forcibly confines girl and prevents her from seeing her family; girl falls in love with monster. The heart wants what it wants, I suppose…
Putting aside contemporary distaste for “problematic” relationships, the Stockholm-syndrome-turned-romance is a pretty hard sell on its own terms. The turnaround from terror to tenderness is a sharp one, it requires skillful storytelling for it to be somewhat credible, and few modern movies have managed to pull it off (Buffalo ’66 is the most successful example I can recall). The tack taken in Beauty is to empower Belle by revealing the Beast’s vulnerabilities (he’s sad and clumsy), emphasize their common interests (the works of William Shakespeare, it turns out), and have them do a dance to a soaring soundtrack. Sadly, it doesn’t really convince.
The first problem concerns character development and pacing. Belle is introduced, at some length, as a bookish, almost tomboyish nerd, who is turned off by the macho boorishness of the village jock, Gaston. The decision to emphasize the studious aspects of Belle’s character plays well to the audience’s intertextual familiarity with Emma Watson as similarly brainy Hermione from the Harry Potter movies, and it also helps to elide some of the now-archaic girlishness of previous iterations of Belle, which is a good thing. But within what seems like a very short amount of screen time spent playing in the snow and reading books with the equally macho Beast (he fights a pack of dire-wolves for her: butch), Belle completely and inexplicably reverts to type: suddenly she’s spinning around a ballroom, wearing a wedding-cake of a dress, supposedly swept off her feet because her captor revealed his sizable library — there’s a huge disconnect there. At one point Belle gets pelted hard in the face by a melon-sized snowball, so I can only presume that concussion may have played a role in her odd behavior, because the narrative sure doesn’t justify it.
The unlikely chemistry between Belle and the Beast is fatally exacerbated by the live-action/CGI blend. The Beast is mainly rendered using the best CGI technology studios have at their disposal, including his facial features (a late post-production decision, apparently, as the movie was originally shot using elaborate prosthetics). Current CGI effects are incredible, and they excel in depicting all kinds of monsters and action sequences that simply cannot be reproduced by conventional costume or stunt-persons. But the technology is still far short of the sort of nuances required to portray genuine emotions and tenderness in intimate scenes between characters. Next to Emma Watson, the Beast’s movements and mannerisms are subtly, yet very obviously, unnatural. The effect is distinctly uncanny, and to see them embrace and interact is cringeworthy and, to me, more than mildly creepy. In the 1991 animated feature, Belle and the Beast are rendered in the same textures, they have the same weight and movement — this helps us to overcome our disbelief in a romance between a human woman and a weird bear-goat-thing. In this movie, the stylistic disconnect echoes the narrative one, and it really doesn’t work at all.
A second CGI-related problem concerns the use of the large and costly ensemble cast of voice actors to play the various bits of animated cutlery and furniture in the Beast’s mansion (at $170m, Beauty is the most expensive musical ever made, and I imagine a fair chunk of this went on stars). In the original animated feature, these characters are the larger-than-life chorus, bringing colour, humour, and joy to the movie. In the 2017 feature, an obsession with CGI realism neuters the expressive core of these characters. The glossy gold rendering of the candelabra’s face looks impressive, but it makes the features completely indiscernible. The mouths of the crockery are painted on in barely discernible pastel hues, which is very pretty, but very difficult to actually make out. The whole effect is alienating, odd, and in-no-way endearing. And what is that swan toilet brush thing even supposed to be? Take a look at the comparison below and tell me which set you feel better about.
With such problematic visuals, Beauty needed (and paid for) some stand-out vocal performances. They don’t really show up. I went into the movie not actually knowing who was in it, and was none the wiser until the distastefully self-congratulatory “reveal” at the end, when all the household bric-a-brac resume their human forms. Ooh look, Emma Thompson! Sir Ian McKellen! This whole scene plays out like a gaudy, extended curtain call, with the camera lingering on the expensively-assembled talent as though celebrity-worship is the real climax of the story. Lumiére the candelabra’s strangely Mexican-sounding French accent was confusingly indistinct and underwhelming to me throughout, until the character was revealed to have been played by Ewan MacGregor — what a baffling miscast.
I understand the flaws I’ve pointed out might not stick in everyone’s craw, so I should credit Beauty for several redeeming qualities. The costumes and sets are brilliant, and despite its shortcomings, the CGI works exceptionally well in helping to conjure a very tangible eighteenth-century French village, and the animated furniture is visually incredible, even if it fails to engage. The musical numbers are delivered with real gusto, and Emma Watson brings a convincing down-to-earth quality to Belle that was lacking in the somewhat breathless animated feature. Finally, there are some delightful twists on the original, including a welcome subversion of the relationship between Gaston and manservant LeFou (played capably by Josh Gad).
Dan’s rating (5 / 10)
Director: Bill Condon
Writers: Stephen Chbosky (screenplay), Evan Spiliotopoulos (screenplay)
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Emma Thompson, Sir Ian McKellen
Release Date: March 17, 2017
Runtime: 2 hr 9 min
MPAA Rating: PG