Review: ‘Beauty and the Beast’ a Mere Memory of 1991 Movie

Review: ‘Beauty and the Beast’ a Mere Memory of 1991 Movie

Disney’s new rendition of Beauty and the Beast roared to a record-setting box office debut this past weekend, but this polished live-action remake sticks so close to the studio’s 1991 animated version of the film that it ends up evoking little more than a memory of a classic film.

Still, it’s a good memory: the ‘91 Beast was one of the studio’s last truly great traditionally-animated features, along with Aladdin and The Lion King, and ranks right up there with the studio’s most beloved classics from their golden age.

And yet that 1991 film ran a swift 84 minutes. This new live-action remake comes with a bloated 129-minute runtime, and yet save for some additional backstory and a couple new songs, I cannot tell you a single notable difference between the two versions.

Some of that backstory is noble, at least in intent. One of the less agreeable aspects of the earlier movie is the Beast himself, who was arrogant and unkind. He was cursed for a reason: refusing help to an old woman seeking shelter from the cold.

Yet ‘91’s Beast undergoes little (figurative) transformation during the course of the movie besides falling in love with his beauty; he’s a more sympathetic presence by the end of the film thanks to Belle, but there’s little to suggest he’s really changed.

In the 2017 version, Dan Stevens’ Beast feels a little better defined, if only due to some throwaway dialogue from his servants, who inform us that he was an “innocent” boy corrupted by wealth and his father. They failed him, and thus deserve their curse, too.

Those servants are the familiar inanimate objects from the animated movie, here created via CGI but given a lifelike gleam: there’s the candelabra Lumière (voiced and briefly played by Ewan McGregor), clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), feather duster Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and others, including a new grand piano character (Stanley Tucci).

It’s such a fine supporting cast we wish they had more to do; McKellan and especially McGregor, sporting the thickest faux-French accent of them all, are a lot of fun.

But best of all is the villainous Gaston, played here by a mustache-twirling Luke Evans. While the surrounding film gets dark and dreary and culminates in an endless 20-minute battle scene, his dastardly cartoon brings the perfect amount of relief into the material.

Sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad), touted as the first openly gay character in a Disney movie but really just an effeminate stereotype, is also a hoot, belting out the film’s biggest musical highlight, a rousing rendition of ‘Gaston’.

The charismatic Stevens appears only briefly at the beginning and end of the film; the lead character of this live-action movie is, ironically, animated for most of it, and even the actor’s voice work has been modulated. While the CGI work is accomplished it’s also obvious and often distracting; they may as well have inserted the ‘91 cartoon in it’s place. Still, the addition of an original number for Beast, who never gets to sing in the original, was a nice touch.

Emma Watson makes for an especially solid Belle, particularly in early scenes rebuffing the advances of Gaston. But for all of Watson's might, it’s a tough sell for us to buy into her character's romance with a cartoon. She, too, gets some padded backstory involving her father (Kevin Kline) and their flight from Paris.

2017’s Beauty and the Beast is handsomely mounted by director Bill Condon, full of wonderful Baroque sets and costumes; even the extras in the village scenes feel evocative of a time and place.

The film undeniably looks great, with one catch: when you can see it. Much of the film takes place at night, and scenes within the Beast’s castle, the primary setting, are especially dimly lit and drab.

But the filmmakers are not going for some kind of natural lighting, Barry Lyndon-like effect: the dreary look of the movie is intentional, a misguided attempt at selling the CGI creations more convincingly. It’s strange how these blockbusters spend so much effort in perfecting their visual effects only to shroud them in shadows in a low-rent effort to fool us.

Still, at least one CGI sequence breaks free from the darkness: a flying-kitchenware performance of the classic ‘Be Our Guest’, belted out by McGregor’s Lumière, which throws photorealism out the window for a few minutes for a Fantasia-like kaleidoscope of colors and images.

This new Beauty and the Beast is certainly not a bad movie, and if you’ve never seen the original, or have an affinity for this kind of thing but an aversion to animation, you might just be swept away in the magical remnants of the previous film.

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