7 out of 10
Emma Watson as Belle
Directed by Bill Condon
Beauty and the Beast Review:
It seems obvious to say, but animation and live-action filmmaking are two very different things. Animation is bright colors and brighter emotions, better at showing off what feels real than what is actually real. And live action is real life… or at least as close an approximation as can be faked. It needs to deal with not what just feels real but looks, sounds and smells real as well.
With the introduction of computer-animated feature films 20 years ago, that difference has started to shrink, or at least it seems so. Computer-animated films are still animated and still more or less play by the same rules as their cell-animated ancestors, but they change our expectation for what the animated aesthetic should feel like. As such, above and beyond themselves, they serve as an excellent bridge to the live-action remakes of classic animated films, but the rules don’t necessarily travel with them.
Anthropomorphizing, we quickly find, is a one way street; what is charming and fun in one medium, easily becomes creepy and scary in another.
Take Disney’s new version of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, a film which could be a parable about anthropomorphizing and how it works. Belle (Watson), the most beautiful and (in a remove from classic Disney style) smartest and most well-read person in her village, desperately wants to leave it behind and explore the ‘great wide somewhere.’
It’s a point of view which makes her the perfect person, ironically, to be shackled into a magic castle filled with talking furniture and a monstrous Beast (Stevens). Under production Sarah Greenwood’s design, and visual effects from the maestros at Digital Domain and Weta Digital, these living props are just real enough and just human enough to be profoundly disturbing. And yet Belle (and by extension the audience) must look past that to see the real people underneath and bring them back to the land of the living before it is too late.
That is a lot to put onto a fairy tale about talking teapots (Thompson) and singing candelabras (McGregor), but Beauty and the Beast does not so much invite it as require it. An 80-minute musical fairy tale can rush through on charm and mood and not worry itself too much on questions like ‘why is it sunny and summer time at the beginning and cold and rainy fall a day later?’ or ‘why did it take Maurice months to make a journey it took him a day to do the first time?’, but a live-action film has to answer them.
Or at least director Bill Condon (Mr. Holmes) has decided it does; and once it does there is suddenly no end to the questions which never mattered before. What made the Beast such a jerk before his transformation? What did the castle inhabitants do to deserve being cursed (besides being in the wrong place at the wrong time)? Why does Maurice (Klein) act the way he does? What did growing up without a mom do to Belle psychologically? Why is Gaston (Evans) such a jerk to everyone? Condon and co. are going to do their best to answer all of these questions (and more!) without dropping any of the material coming from the previous version. Forget what I said previously, that is a lot to put onto a fairy tale about talking teapots and singing candelabras.
There is no reason to do a remake just to redo things exactly as they were before, and goodness knows adding depth to characters is never a bad thing. But it all has to be balanced; when something new comes in, what was there before has to be altered to fit. Just slamming it together and expecting it to work as well as it did before will cause problems.
The new motivations Beast tries to develop, from Belle’s longing for her mother to Gaston’s need for challenge don’t so much clash with the story’s original central theme as ignore it entirely, heading off into other waters before remembering to double back because the original story demands it. Much of this comes from the focus on Belle, whose primary conflict is external — she’s trapped in a castle by a Beast — not internal, which means her backstory development does not in any way connect with the central theme of seeing past surfaces to make judgment. It makes for a film frequently shooting off in tangents and not always coming together into a whole until the musical numbers start.
It’s in those moments when Beast actually does manage to encompass the charm of the original, partly because they force realism to take a back seat. McGregor in particular takes to voice over with aplomb, while Evans steals most of his scenes as the villanous Gaston, giving his venality a robust theatricality, which makes him funny instead of annoying.
It doesn’t hurt that even in a new milieu the old songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (double Oscar winners back in ’91) are still great, possibly even the best of all Disney musicals. They’re so good, in fact, that they make the new additions by Menken and Tim Rice (Ashman died shortly after the original film was completed) stand out, partly because they’re not quite as good but mostly because they sound very, very different. The original songs are bright and bubbly, while the newer ones sound like excerpts from a new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. They, like the film itself, are the product of a different age and it’s not possible to do a direct translation from one frame to another.
That said, Beauty and the Beast is less a carbon copy of the previous film and more a high definition re-mastering, which means everything that worked before pretty much still works now. There’s just more detail now, in some cases a lot more, providing a feel and a texture which didn’t exist before. But in the process, it’s rubbed some of the charm off.