It feels like Disney’s live-action remakes of their animated classics have all been leading to this moment. Though everyone is sure to have a different favorite, Beauty and the Beast is the most iconic of their catalog, next to The Little Mermaid (which is next to receive the remake treatment). The original was the first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture, and even managed nominations in Sound Mixing and three for Original Song. Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and The Jungle Book have all been remade with varying degrees of critical success and huge, record breaking returns at the box office. Beauty and the Beast is bound to be their biggest endeavor yet.
And yet, for all of the hype, star power and magic, Beauty and the Beast winds up being just a straight and very soft pitch down the middle, never slipping into train wreck territory but never achieving the moments of grandeur and greatness that it so clearly desires.
Emma Watson is Belle (if her seven film stint as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter wasn’t going to be the thing that cemented her into film history, than the endless pile of dolls, costumes and other merchandise most certainly will). As we all remember, despite being the most beautiful in her French village she’s a bit of an oddity, all because she would rather spend her days traveling to far off places through the books she borrows from a kind neighbor. While others are satisfied with the day to day of being a small townsperson, Belle desires something else entirely, something much larger and grander that most certainly isn’t the advances of Gaston (Luke Evans).
“I want adventure in the great wide somewhere,” she pleas in the middle of an open field. “I want it more than I can tell.”
You all remember the scene, it’s iconic, something this live-action remake dutifully acknowledges by painstakingly recreating it and framing it to the best of its ability. Spoiler: it falls short (but more on that later). And so as we all know, Belle does get the adventure she so dearly in the form of being trapped as a prisoner of the Beast (Dan Stevens) in his empty, enchanted castle after taking the place of her father Maurice (Kevin Kline). During her imprisonment, she meets a host of the Beast’s servants who have been transformed into objects as part of the curse. Ian McKellan and Ewan McGregor voice Cogsworth and Lumière respectively, while Emma Thompson takes over for Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts, Audra McDonald voices the talking wardrobe, Stanley Tucci is a talking Harpischord and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is Plumette. The gang thinks Belle could be the one to enchant their angry master, break the spell and yada yada yada, you know where I’m going with this.
Watson, who reportedly turned down the Academy Award-winning La La Land to star in this film, plays Belle much like her La La Land replacement Emma Stone played her character: by not playing a character at all. Since leaving the Harry Potter franchise, Watson has had the most success in leaving behind the school robes, cauldrons and wand, and I don’t just mean that in the sense she’s been able to land a role in another big-budget film. She gave an understated, yet refined turn in 2012’s Perks of Being A Wallflower alongside Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller. In 2013 she delivered one of the year’s best performances in The Bling Ring as Nicki, a sort of composite character based off of Alexis Neiers. It’s easy to play dumb for laughs, but Watson played Nicki with a sense of cunning and deviancy that was simmering beneath her vapid and self-centered surface. And I could write a whole essay on the greatness of her work in Darren Aronofsky’s messy Noah, where she delivers a monologue that gave me hope for the star turns by her that demanded to be given.
Which is not to say her performance as Belle is bad, it’s just not good. The heavy use of auto-tune hampers Watson’s attempts to sell the character, and try as she might she is no singer. I could say that about many of the cast members, who just weren’t cut out to perform these classic songs. Bill Condon has directed a musical before (hello Dreamgirls!) but this just feels cheap and poorly made by comparison, despite having a much larger budget. The visual effects are solid, but feel poor when compared to the Oscar winning work in The Jungle Book. Even Belle’s dress, one of the most iconic things in Disney’s history, looks like a cheap, Party City knockoff. We’re several hundred worlds away from Sandy Powell’s incredible work on Cinderella.
Emma Thompson is doing some strange, Cockney accent that feels like more like really bad Adele impersonation than it does a rendition of “Beauty and the Beast,” that never feels as enchanting as it’s supposed to.”Be Our Guest” feels more like a dinner theater rendition than a big budget Hollywood recreation. Again, they’re not exactly awful but they’re not at all memorable. To sum it all up, a lot of the music feels more like going through the motions and just barely hitting the mark rather than the now iconic songs from the animated version. The only true singer of the cast, McDonald, is given the least to do. Which is crazy because how on earth do you waste Audra McDonald?! If this was what we were going to get, why remake it at all in the first place? There are plenty of big name actors who aren’t classically trained singers but still know how to carry a song, all while playing Disney Princess.
Running at two hours and nine minutes, Beauty and the Beast feels much longer than it actually is and should have been. Despite remaining faithful to the original (which was only 84 minutes long), the screenplay shoehorns in so many plot points and storylines that are never seen all the way through and don’t feel all that important to the plot. For example, Belle spends a lot of the film wondering things about her mother, whose fate Maurice spends a lot of the film keeping from her. It’s later revealed that her mother died from the plague, something that is given barely any screen time to truly resonate and feels incredibly anticlimactic after being referenced throughout the entire film. There’s some mentions of the Beasts cruel father which is supposed to give some insight as to why he’s so cold and terrible, but is off-handedly mentioned and given a short cut scene that does nothing to further the character’s arc; it exists simply to exist.
When the film isn’t being concerned with recreating exact scenes, which either are just fine or feel undercooked entirely, its attempts to step out and do something new feel like misfires. It fails in ways that Cinderella (which was a beautiful but wholly traditional adaptation) and Maleficent (which didn’t work entirely as a film but it created a powerful, bold and heartbreaking story behind a character we thought we knew) succeeded. Take the “exclusive gay moment” that was given a nauseating amount of attention in the press. LeFou, aka Gaston’s sidekick who spends entirety of the film following him, was hailed as Disney’s “first gay character” despite having zero moments in the film that express his sexuality, let alone any sort of thorough character development at all. That is, unless you interpret his devotion to Gaston as an unrequited love. Or maybe you don’t! Who knows! But don’t ask the film the answer, because it’s not sure either. Josh Gad plays LeFou with a flamboyant undertone that I suppose could be gay, if being flamboyant is the only criteria necessary to be a homosexual. But then again, what do I know! I’m just a homosexual with a laptop and an opinion.
I don’t hate Beauty and the Beast. I know it sounds like I have a lot of criticisms (and I do), but as I said in the beginning, the film ultimately feels very middle of the road. There are no truly terrible moments in the film, just things that don’t amount to much or don’t work. Nor are there any great moments, just some moments that are good striving to be great all of which add up to one fine, serviceable film that feels weaker in comparison to its predecessors, and more like a wasted opportunity than it does anything else. Kids will love it, and maybe you will too. I would argue that has more to do with fond memories and feelings of nostalgia.
I just hope The Little Mermaid gets better treatment.
Oscar Chances: It’s far from a lock in any of these categories, but you can bet Disney will try and get the film recognized for its Visual Effects, Costumes and any of the new songs.