'Beauty and The Beast': Why Live-Action Remakes Can't Truly Replace Cartoons

There are some things that should never be photo-realistic.
Courtesy of Photofest; Courtesy of Disney
'Beauty and the Beast' in 1991 and 2017

One of the most obvious things about the new version of Beauty and the Beast is how offputtingly strange some of the story's main characters look in "live-action." Not Emma Watson's Belle, of course, nor even the CGI Beast voiced by Legion's Dan Stevens, although he loses some of the charm of his animated predecessor.

I'm referring to the household servants, each one an anthropomorphized household object who can sing, dance and dispense homespun wisdom to bring our star-crossed lovers together. In the 1991 animated version of the story, they come across as cute and charming; in the more detailed, more realistic contemporary retelling, there's something creepy about them. They look too real, and it's difficult to pull the character out of the object in front of your eyes — where does the clock end and the stuffy-yet-adorable butler begin?

It's not a problem that Beauty and the Beast alone has faced; last year's The Jungle Book remake suffered a similar malady, replacing the exaggerated, anthropomorphized animals of the Disney animated take with more photo-realistic designs and losing a lot of the expressiveness in the process. Similarly, a comparison of the nonhuman characters in the animated and live-action Alice in Wonderland films shows that a lot ends up being lost in the translation between animation and live-action, sacrificed on the altar of … what, exactly? Realism, perhaps, for a story about magical spells and the impossible come to life?

Beast, of course, is just the latest in a series of animated movies to receive the live-action remake treatment. In addition to Jungle Book and Alice in Wonderland, there's also been Cinderella and Maleficent (built on the Sleeping Beauty mythos as portrayed in the 1959 Disney animated movie) in recent years; upcoming are takes on Mulan, The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, with Cruella (the second live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians, following the 1996 version starring Glenn Close) also in the works. These live-action remakes are a bona fide trend.

While it's tempting to hand-wave this away as a twist on the superhero movie genre — they're both kids' stuff refashioned for adult audiences, after all — or simply more proof that Hollywood has no new ideas, depending on your level of cynicism, there's something else going on here: a slow shift toward live-action (with CGI) as the default for these kinds of stories, literally replacing the animated versions but unable to replicate the results they produce along the way.

The uncanny valley of singing dishware in the live-action Beauty highlights that last point: The very specificity that live-action CGI demands (and delivers) makes it harder for audiences to accept nonhuman characters as peers to the humans — they seem too alien, too dissimilar. By contrast, there's more in common between Belle and Mrs. Potts in the 1991 animated story, because the lack of detail in the line work means the two subconsciously look more alike.

The same is true of almost every animated story: The cartoonishness works in favor of the movie, because the artists are rarely trying to be realistic — they're more focused on telling the story in the best way possible. That's rarely the case on a live-action remake, for the simple fact that there's an additional layer of "reality" immediately placed upon proceedings: Animals have to look like, and move like, real animals (or kitchenware like real kitchenware, albeit magically brought to life) — which ultimately ends up removing more important tools from the storytelling than any level of increased verisimilitude can replace. Visual effects are fine and good, but good acting will win over the audience no matter what, and cartoons have the freedom to act more than re-creations of reality ever could.

A comparison of the two Beauty and the Beasts makes it clear that animated movies can do things that even the most sophisticated CGI can't — or, at least, isn't given the chance to, when applied to live-action contexts. With that in mind, isn't it time that filmmakers accepted that, and moved on from trying to re-create what already exists in favor of trying to do something new?

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