Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ Review: The Good, the Bad and the Beastly
It's not that I didn't appreciate the feminist focus on the villain's tragic backstory in Maleficent or the surprisingly impressive update on Cinderella's typically lukewarm fairy tale. Hell, I even enjoyed Tim Burton's gothy, madcap Alice in Wonderland reimagining to some degree—both the 2010 film and its 2016 sequel. But as a diehard Disney fan, whose favorite era of Mouse is the company's glorious animation renaissance of the 1990s (including 1989's The Little Mermaid), I was concerned that by the time they laid their hands on Beauty, we might not really need a live action tale as old as time.
Where Bill Condon's sweeping Beauty and the Beast goes right, it's goes very right. While the 2017 remake—starring Emma Watson, Luke Evans, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson and Josh Gad—honors its animated namesake with a plethora of nostalgic shot-for-shot scenes, this one tries to dig a little deeper, updating its story by filling in glaring plot holes (Where is Belle's mother? Why is the Beast such a jerk? How does a kingdom just disappear from the world's memory?) with satisfactory precision.
In this adaptation, which otherwise follows the 1991 cartoon to a T, we learn Belle's mother died from the plague in Paris, a development which offers Belle's father, Maurice, a deeper and more poignant backstory. As for Beast's attitude problem, we find out that he shares a slight parallel with Belle in that he too lost his mother, a beacon of kindness, but was left instead with a vain and cruel king for a father from whom he learned his petulant behavior. Gaston and LeFou's relationship is more developed as well, though only vaguely, as it's revealed they were comrades in "the war."
In this telling, we're finally given a good reason as to why the townsfolk don't recall a giant fancy castle looming in the woods—the Enchantress wiped all memory of the vain prince's existence when she cursed him—and to heighten the stakes, we find out that the enchanted objects in the (stunningly designed) castle will actually turn completely inanimate once the last rose petal falls.
The casting for Condon's live action film is on point: McGregor and McKellen are wonderful as comedic duo Lumiere and Cogsworth, the Scottish actor in particular navigating his admittedly poor faux French accent with an acceptable gusto. Gad, most known to Disney fans as the voice of Olaf in Frozen, is delightful as LeFou. And Thompson shines as Mrs. Potts, in some cases sounding eerily similar to the teapot's original voice actress, Angela Lansbury.
Evans' narcissistic Gaston makes for a perfect love-to-hate-him villain, and while he's not as buffoonish as his cartoon counterpart, his penchant for violence and misogyny is made all the more apparent. As the Beast, Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens does a miraculous job of capturing the original's complexity and burgeoning sense of humor.
Watson is impeccably cast as bookworm Belle. (Is it any wonder the girl behind Harry Potter's Hermione would slip as comfortably into this role as Cinderella slips into her glass slippers?) While I initially worried that the English actress may be too perfect to play Belle, and therefore might become a distraction onscreen, she does the role justice, injecting a sense of heart and perseverance into her would-be princess and building upon the feminist undertones of the classic animated character by being an inventor herself—not just the daughter of one—and even trying to teach the children of her "small provincial town" to read.
While she certainly possesses that certain je ne cest qua, my only gripe with Watson's Belle is, unfortunately, her singing. It's not that she can't sing, but the actress simply can't hold one of Lumiere's candles to Paige O'Hara's sparkling vocal prowess. While she hits the right notes and is pleasant to listen to, there's an almost tinny quality to her singing voice which becomes noticeable when juxtaposed against the depth, quirk and character present in the other players' vocals. Watson's voice almost sounds too pristine, too processed here—and perhaps it is.
Speaking of songs, the film does well to honor its original Alan Menken and Howard Ashman-crafted soundtrack with a handful of joyfully choreographed musical numbers. All the classic favorites are here, of course: "Belle" is a provincial pleasure which paints a colorful portrait of a girl with big dreams stuck in a small town in the French countryside; "Gaston" and the "Mob Song" are both energetically choreographed and spirited; and "Be Our Guest" is a fun, dazzling CGI delight which even contains a subtle gag about the fact that Belle never actually ends up eating dinner in the original film.
The film's titular song, unfortunately, is a minor, minor let down. While "Beauty and the Beast" is still gorgeous, it lacks the undeniable magical ballroom punch of its predecessor. Part of this, perhaps, may be that Belle's ball gown looks awful. While the gown in 2015's live action Cinderella was a breathtaking sartorial spin on the 1950 princess's blue dress, Watson's sparse, frilly-hemmed yellow gown lacks the sumptuous glamour and draping that made 1991's so iconic. It just doesn't make for a magical fashion moment.
Unlike the 1991 film, Beauty and the Beast benefits from a more diverse cast, with non-white townsfolk and castle dwellers, more accurately reflecting the racial diversity of France. In particular, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is adorable as feather duster Plumette and Audra McDonald brings her unique Broadway charm to the role of the enchanted operatic dresser, Garderobe.
Where it fails, however, is in the design of its CGI characters. While Beast is fine and, in fact, more appealing than I thought a giant, furry computer-animated buffalo-gorilla-lion-bear creature would be (animator Glen Keane's cartoon design remains my favorite take on the fairy tale figure), the sentient castle objects are jarringly rendered, often appearing more frightening than friendly. (Mrs. Potts' dead eyes and blank smile could give me nightmares, and Lumiere looks a bit like a man who's been gilded alive in gold leafing.)
Some of the new songs also sound a bit same-y. "How Does a Moment Last Forever" and "Days in the Sun" don't add much to the story or character development, and sound so similar I thought the latter was a reprise. In contrast, the Beast's solo ballad, the Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque "Evermore," is a big, heart-wrenching and welcome addition that offers the prince a moment to unleash his inner pain and growth.
The biggest bummer of the film is the character of LeFou. As a Disney sidekick, he's great—a comedic dream who's given a touch more humanization and complexity than the original animated character, so much so that he ultimately redeems himself—and Gad is truly suited for the role, bringing with him a likeability and charm that is undeniable. (He is Olaf, after all.)
The letdown instead comes from the film's highly anticipated, highly debated "gay moment"—a scene which is indeed merely a fleeting few seconds which play more for laughs than as a proper, progressive introduction to Disney's first "openly" gay character, as was touted by the director prior to release.
LeFou's sexuality is never really made apparent in the film—instead of giving any indication, he even calls himself "too clingy" when Gaston asks him why he hasn't yet settled down with a nice girl—and it's only hinted at literally within the last few seconds of the film where he, as he's dancing with a woman, is suddenly thrust into the arms of a young man who earlier was made the punchline of a drag joke. They smile at each other cutely and proceed to waltz, but it doesn't read as the "exclusively gay moment" Condon promised.
Instead, the brief moment plays into Disney's long and dubious history of queercoding villainous characters, and while I'm happy LeFou found some redemption in this adaptation, the way it's played as a blink-and-you'll-miss-it joke seems more problematic than celebratory or pro-LGBTQ.
Despite the film's many shortcomings, Beauty and the Beast successfully captures and builds upon the magic of and nostalgia for a film so many '90s kids grew up with. (Belle in particular remains an important figure for many young women.) Where it shines, it dazzles—the cast, the music, the atmosphere and sets—and it's clear from the countless teary eyes I witnessed in the audience of my theater that the movie truly means something to so many people, Disney fans and beyond.
Condon's skillful directorial touch, Watson's captivating charm and Disney's enduring cinematic magic certainly did the film justice, and I'm more than glad I watched it because among all of company's live action remakes and reboots so far, Beauty and the Beast is the Belle of the ball.
Beauty and the Beast is now in theaters nationwide.
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