Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST Is Both Beautiful and Soulless

New and shiny doesn't necessarily mean better.

Disney is a money-printing machine at the multiplex these days that cannot be denied. They can put on a bow on whatever dusty old turd they want and collect a billion worldwide, storytelling ingenuity be damned. It is no surprise that the Mouse House’s new live action remake of their seminal 1991 masterpiece is bound to break the box office. The original Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture (and that was back in the days when there were only five nominees in that coveted category) and it’s considered an indisputable classic around the world. This iteration isn’t going to replace the former’s legacy or improve on it in any way. While its technical merits are noteworthy, this Beauty is pretty on the outside and hollow on the inside.

2017’s Beauty and the Beast further confirms that remakes will almost always pale in comparison to their forebearers. The fact that Hollywood has churned out another weak remake isn’t a surprise, but an uninspired do-over with this level of potential is particularly disappointing. Sure, it all looks nice and every frame appears to have cost a million dollars, but there isn’t a single spark of energy charged within it. Its heart is an emotional nonstarter, and the familiarity of the beats lessens our grip on any potential tension at every turn.

This is basically the exact same movie we’ve all seen before, but with a CGI makeover. And yet, it comes up shorthanded even though mountains of cash were thrown at it. It almost feels like a bunch of people decided to play dress up with some expensive clothes and toys and called it a movie. There are moments that feel included not because they’re essential to the story but simply because they existed in the original. A cardinal sin.

You can’t really blame the commitment of the titular Belle (Emma Watson) and Beast (Dan Stevens, from The Guest, which you absolutely must add to your Netflix list right this instant). The duo clearly recognizes the weight of the iconic roles and does their best to give justice to the story. But as the scenery explodes, their voices wane. It all gives way to relatively snooze-worthy climax that no performer could singlehandedly pull the picture out of.

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Animation allows a freedom to do the extraordinary at a fraction of the price as a live-action representative. But even given the enormous budget of a mega-tentpole release such as this the upgrade is just ever so slightly middling-at-best. Scenes aren’t improved upon or spun in a new direction so much as they try to faithfully recreate the animated masterpiece shot-by-shot. The slavish dedication to the original is almost distracting at times and makes the film feel like it’s incapable of breathing on its own.

It’s been a weird journey for Bill Condon, the formerly acclaimed director and Oscar-winning screenwriter (for the amazing Gods and Monsters). He’s most recently riding off the box office success of the final two Twilight films, for better or for worse. As a director here, Condon does appear to have tried to step up his game since the critical beating he received with the Breaking Dawn chapters but his aptitude behind the camera doesn’t result in anything exceptional. The staging is at times a bit flat and the actors tend to bounce around a lot in their characterizations.

For all its faults, this iteration of Beauty and the Beast is still fantastical and gorgeous. The production design by Sarah Greenwood is jaw dropping in its scope and fine detail. Costumes flow with frilly delight, relishing in the twirls and dips on the dance floor. On a technical level the movie is a marvel. Yet it all feels like an overly ordinate gold frame for a mediocre artistic print within.

Of all the many glamorous and impressive pieces milling about, Emma Watson is above and by far the most enchanting and magnetic of the bunch. Watson is a bonafide Actress with a capital A, and proves yet again apt at elevating the material around her. Although it is kind of a let down that her reteaming with co-screenwriter Stephen Chbosky didn’t yield more emotionally gripping results; Chbosky was the writer-director dynamo of 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower which starred Watson blossoming in a firecracker role.

It is a “tale as old as time” after all, so the plot details of Beauty and the Beast will remain comfortably familiar to anyone familiar with the story’s previous iterations. There’s an added subplot involving Belle’s quest to discover the truth about her deceased mother but everything else remains the same. After initially being trapped as the Beast’s prisoner, Belle eventually helps to reveal the beating heart underneath all the fur. Their love is challenged by the beefy Gaston (Luke Evans, a true surprise here) and championed by a crew of inanimate objects transformed from their former human housekeeping bodies. Same old, same old.

Gifted performers abound as the household items come to life including Ewan McGregor (as Lumiere), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), and Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts). The seasoned veterans add dimensions to their vocal performances and theatrical emphasis for their many musical numbers. These characters bring the most joy and light to the proceedings even when the production as a whole feels monumentally unimaginative.

Disney should really be charging half price for their remakes because they’re not exactly bringing a full plate to the table. We’re their “guest”, and the show we’re distracted with is at times absolutely dazzling. But while we’re gasping at the spectacle and lavish detail on screen, it's hard to shake the feeling that we’re getting pickpocketed. We leave the theater with less than when we arrived with. Even though the film ostensibly checked a bunch of boxes, it just doesn’t offer up anything spectacular. Younger generations, however, might be more forgiving of it if they weren’t raised on the original cartoon version. Most of us in the crowd aren’t going to be as overly receptive.

Dan is a lifelong movie geek who's been a projectionist, critic, director, (accidental) actor, and writer in the industry since E.T. phoned home. He currently lives in Vancouver and doesn’t get outside nearly as much as he should.