We all know why this movie exists. With the success of Maleficent and Cinderella, Disney moved full tilt into live action remakes of their classic hand-drawn animated films. Cynically speaking, it is a way for Disney to recycle their existing intellectual property and iconography to drive merchandise sales and theme park tickets. Overall the results have been pretty good, with Maleficent truly taking on the idea of “Wicked, but for Sleeping Beauty” and running with it, and Cinderella working backwards from the original story to give the characters backstory that heightened the thematic parallels between them.
And while those two films took clear inspiration from the original classics in their production design, they managed to bring new ideas, seeing those pieces through a new angle. I was especially excited to see what Bill Condon, director of the two best Twilight films, would bring to this particular story. Beauty and the Beast, however, hews much closer to the 1991 original than those efforts. This presents a number of problems from the start.
Chief among them is that the original version, as directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, is a perfect movie. Perfection. Each element adds to the other, the character arcs and motivations are well-defined, and more films should take note of how it handles exposition. So rather than creating its own take on the most iconic moments of that film, this Beauty and the Beast simply seeks to recreate them with Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Emma Thompson, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, and Ewan MacGregor. Almost every scene in this film falls into one of two categories: recreating a scene from the 1991 film, or adding things which simply happen between the scenes we already know.
The biggest change in the film is that the Enchantress who curses the Beast is now a woman in the village (Hattie Morahan), which is notable because it is both odd and literally adds nothing to the film. All of the villagers ignore her as a beggar woman, and she doesn’t curse them. Weird.
Equally weird are the aesthetic choices the film makes. The character designs for Lumière, Cogsworth, and especially Mrs. Potts feel uninspired and rote. Can we make a candlestick move and talk and seem like it exists in 3D space? Sure! Let’s do it! But making them “realistic” reduces their relatability. We’re seeing them as animate objects, and while the story can try to justify it by saying they are on a ticking clock (in this version, the servants will become non-magical objects once that last rose petal falls), it creates distance between the audience and the most charming characters in the film. I am astounded that Mrs. Potts’ nose is not her spout. That’s just anti-fun.
This version does add an interesting idea where each time a petal falls from the enchanted rose, another part of the Beast’s castle collapses. Cool concept, right? It’s a bit on the nose, sure, but this is a fairy tale, and therefore turning a metaphor into a visual cue is perfectly acceptable. However, an unintended consequence is the castle has exactly one gloomy aesthetic, which could be characterized as half-ruined. In the animated film, different areas of the castle feel different, from the dungeon, to the kitchen, even to the forbidden West Wing. There is no doubt as to where you are at any given moment. That is all but ruined by this choice, and the castle, where much of the film takes place, has little to no discernible geography.
Of course, there are new songs, as all musical adaptations to film are required to add in order to be eligible for Best Original Song Academy Awards. Even if you’d never seen the 1991 film, you’d likely be able to tell which songs are preexisting and those added for this version. The best of the new songs is “Evermore,” which the Beast sings as he watches Belle run from the castle to try to save her father. The song itself is fine, but Dan Stevens nails the performance, giving it more weight than it would otherwise. However, the song is awkwardly placed in the film, since it comes right after the title song, when Belle leaves to save her father. Thus it ends up pumping the brakes at arguably the most exciting and urgent moment in the film.
So the film doesn’t look particularly great, makes choices seemingly at random, and pads out the well told story from its source material.
Here’s the twist: In the actual time spent watching the film, most of these things wash over. The film is a lot of fun, and to its own end, seeing animated sequences recreated with real people is an interesting exercise. The cast is strong enough to pull it off, as its stacked with great actors who know how to breathe life into characters even with small amounts of screen time. Dan Stevens is the film’s secret weapon, as the character who goes through the most emotional change over the course of the film, he completely sells it, even under the thousands of polygons hiding his face.
It’s not that the film is horrible so much that it never does anything to justify its own existence. It feels more like a lavish show at a theme park or something like Disney on Ice, which mostly serve to function as ancillary things to remind you how much you love the source material.* There won’t ever be an instance where I want to watch Beauty and the Beast and reach for this version over the animated story. There’s no reason to do that.
Beauty and the Beast opens in Philly theaters today.
*Unlike Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk: The First Flight, which greatly adds to the mythology of the Na’vi from James Cameron’s culturally relevant film Avatar. Now at the Wells Fargo Center! http://cinedelphia.com/behind-the-scenes-of-cirque-du-soleils-toruk-the-first-flight/
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.