'Beauty and the Beast': Film Review

Beautiful indeed, but second-beast in terms of character design.
3/17/2017

Emma Watson and Dan Stevens star in a tale as old as 26 years, maybe more, in Disney's live-action remake of the 1991 animated hit.

A rococo confection featuring fiendishly intricate production values, a bravura, coloratura-rich musical score and whizz-pop state-of-the-art effects, Disney's latest iteration of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast is more than just eye candy. It's a Michelin-triple-starred master class in patisserie skills that transforms the cinematic equivalent of a sugar rush into a kind of crystal-meth-like narcotic high that lasts about two hours. Only once viewers have come down and digested it all might they feel like the whole experience was actually a little bland, lacking in depth and so effervescent as to be almost instantly forgettable.

Paradoxically, despite all the palpable budget spend on fancy computer effects, it's the cheaper, old-school, real-world bits — like the big ensemble dance sequences or the moments when the actors interact directly with each other rather than with greenscreen illusions — that pack the biggest wallops.

Nevertheless, this live-action-meets-CGI musical directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) should hit the sweet spot with audiences worldwide. Adding bonus in box-office terms, its early spring release leaves it relatively few competitors, apart from Kong: Skull Island and Power Rangers on either side of its opening weekend.

Indeed, all credit should be due to Disney for canny planning on a meta level, one of the trademarks of its success over the years. This remake of the company's 1991 animated hit tracks closely to the earlier version's plot and story beats, includes revamps of all the old songs and arrives just in time to exploit generational nostalgia — to lure viewers who loved the last version as kids and are just becoming parents themselves. Since the 1960s, Disney has been rereleasing in roughly 25-year intervals their classic animated features, either theatrically or on home entertainment platforms. Now that all the old films are out there in the public domain, live-action remakes are the best way to keep the story brands alive, starting with Maleficent in 2014, Cinderella in 2015 and now this.

For example, amusing though McGregor's French accent may be — and never before has candelabra capered so daintily onscreen, especially during the rousing, Busby Berkeley-inspired rendition of "Be Our Guest" — this version has nothing on the winking wryness of the 2-D drawn figure in the 1991 version, with his strong jaw and subtle angularities. Although he gradually pulls himself out of the Uncanny Valley as the film goes on, the Beast is even more of a disappointment, far too stiff and imperious in the early reels. The animation here is less convincing than the actor Jean Marais was under a ton of fake fur and theatrical makeup in Jean Cocteau's 1946 version of the story, which is clearly a key influence here in terms of character and production design.

At least that latter element is immaculate, overseen by designer Sarah Greenwood, working once again with costume designer Jacqueline Durran. This dream team has collaborated many times before on films for Joe Wright such as Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina and Atonement, and between them, they have a particular knack for finding a balance between historicism and contemporary style. The Beast's castle, even if much of it was digitally rendered, is a glowering-glittery blend of Baroque and Gothic elements, all dusty gilt, curlicues and gargoyles. (Surely, YouTube geeks obsessed with how all the Disney film worlds are connected will spot visual references here to Trousdale and Wise's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.)

Maybe it's just the presence of Watson (who's OK, but not great), but there may be an intentional touch of Hogwarts, too, in the impossible, M.C. Escher-like staircases that also evoke the gloom of Frankenstein's laboratory — a realm that played such a key part in Condon's breakthrough work, Gods and Monsters, another story about a gay man (McKellen) in love with a straight guy and lovable "freaks."

Condon also brings his experience to the table for the big musical numbers, which are among the best bits of the film, especially "Gaston," the LeFou-led tribute to our boastful villain (containing the immortal line "I use antlers in all of my decorating") that adds punch to the first part of the film. Filmed refreshingly straight, in a series of wide, stable shots that eschew the fidgety editing of most pop videos in favor of an old-fashioned, MGM-style proscenium space, it's a delicious moment, traditional in all the right ways. That said, it's hard not to wonder how much of the singing throughout really is entirely the work of the actors credited in the final roll and how much was refined by Auto-Tune-style software (or even ghost singers, like in the old days when the late Marni Nixon sang for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, among others). It's easier to believe in talking teacups than in the notion that this really is Dan Stevens' singing voice.

Production companies: A Disney presentation of a Mandeville Films production
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson
Director: Bill Condon
Screenwriters: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Producers: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman
Executive producers: Jeffrey Silver, Thomas Schumacher, Don Hahn
Director of photography: Tobias Schliessler
Production designer: Sarah Greenwood
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran
Editor: Virginia Katz
Score arrangement/conductor: Michael Kosarin
Score arrangement: Christopher Benstead
Music producer: Matt Sullivan
Songs and music, score: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Howard Ashman, Tim Rice
Casting: Lucy Bevan

Rated PG, 129 minutes