MOVIE REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast



Let’s just get this rant out of the way.  Since it is impossible to compare Disney’s new “Beauty and the Beast” with the animated Best Picture Oscar nominee from 1991 without a hot take mountain of pickiness and bias, my advice is simple.  Don’t make comparisons.  

Let them be different, whether that's better or worse, because they are different.  View them separately and independently.  Judge them separately and independently.  Remakes are inevitable.  They don’t make originals disappear and they don’t ruin any childhoods.  In the end, every audience has their own taste and that’s the whole point.  There is room for each person’s enjoyment and we all get to pick it.

Bill Condon’s “Beauty and the Beast” stands firmly on its own merit.  True to Disney’s recent trajectory, its goal is to “reimagine” a previous animated classic into the live-action medium for a new era and audience.  Unlike the recent treatments of "Cinderella" and "Maleficent," this "Beauty and the Beast" stays a full-blown musical.  Imitation, emulation, and homage are all part of that process, but so is reappraisal and reinterpretation.  Those later two actions are what drive this new fantasy film to soaring and successful heights.

You know Disney’s take on Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s version of the “La Belle et la Bete” fairy tale.  In a whimsical pre-title prologue, a self-absorbed and shallow prince (Dan Stevens) rebuffs an enchantress (Hattie Morahan, also narrating) and is cursed for his ignorance into a bestial form, while his foppish followers are turned into household items and furniture.  Years pass and a castle is forgotten by the nearby villagers as a single magical rose in the Beast’s possession counts down the curse’s permanency, one contingent on lessons being learned and hearts changing.

A confluence of fate arrives when an educated and self-assured country girl named Belle, played by Emma Watson, takes her father’s (the bearded version of Kevin Kline, itself a good omen) place in imprisonment by the Beast for trespassing.  Opposition is embodied by the narcissistic war veteran Gaston (Luke Evans), his colorful minion LaFou (Josh Gad), and the torches and pitchforks of the townspeople Belle barely calls neighbors.  Meanwhile, chipper support comes in the form of a charismatic candelabra (Ewan McGregor), a brusque clock maitre de (Ian McKellan), a singing wardrobe (Audra McDonald), a motherly teapot (Emma Thompson), and other domestic knick-knacks.

Bill Condon has gilded a film with ornately radiant and richly textured production values from top to bottom.  The virtual exteriors and the colossal Shepperton Studios sets from the design and decoration team of Sarah Underwood and Katie Spencer (“Sherlock Holmes,” “Atonement”) are imposing and gorgeous.  “Anna Karenina” Oscar winner Jacqueline Durran’s costumes and the work of the hair and makeup armies are immediate artistic Oscar frontrunners already in March.  Boosting the earning potential, the cinematography work of Tobias A. Schliessler, a Condon and Peter Berg vet, suits the IMAX and 3D scales “Beauty and the Beast” is shooting for.  One negative grain of salt to swallow in the technical department is the inconsistent visual effects to emote creature faces, from Lumiere all the way the Beast, through overly thick character designs.

Writers Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (“Hercules”) have stretched the 84-minute original into an engrossing and full-bodied movie musical that spans 129 minutes of spectacle.  Those extra 45 minutes are well spent on adding length and depth to previously shallow sections.  For example, the courtship between the future lovers is given more peaks and valleys than a snowball fight and a couple of shared dinners.  In addition, artful backstory depth is given to Belle’s parents and excellent narrative layers seek to include new transformed castle characters, including Stanley Tucci’s harpsichord, new villager figures, and deftly weave personalized connections between them.  One after another, these sharp and welcome changes work as intended.

The most impressive extension effort of the new “Beauty and the Beast” is its four brand new songs written by original lyricist Tim Rice, returning from a 17-year hiatus from film work.  Lead by “Evermore,” a thundering and showstopping ballad performed by Dan Steven’s Beast in the film and by the incomparable Josh Groban in the end credits, the new musical elements expand the storytelling further and play seamlessly alongside Rice’s old favorites he wrote with the late Howard Ashman and an intact reprise of Alan Menken’s score.

Watson is courageous and just fine with her heroine work.  McGregor lays on Lumiere’s French accent a little too thick and too often pushes McKellen’s Cogsworth into the background.  Nevertheless, the “Moulin Rouge!” star is more than up to the task when the microphone is on and old Gandalf manages to sneak in his requisite gruff zingers.  Thompson makes Mrs. Potts more bourgeois without losing any elegance when refinement is necessary.  Gad’s supposedly controversial flamboyance is utterly harmless, and Luke Evans, who will never be someone like Hugh Jackman, shifts Gaston’s vanity into a steely, growling, and true villain.

The ensemble performances that imbue the singing and storytelling work for the different landscape that is live-action cinema.  This is a cast of Hollywood actors requiring their faces and presences on-screen.  They are not drawings voiced by Broadway performers and opera singers for maximum performance.  The new film dials it down for a different reality.  Like the recent “La La Land,” no one is trying sing (or over-sing) to rattle the rafters of the back row.  That’s not a knock or deficiency.  It’s just different approach that doesn’t hurt a thing.  

LESSON #1: LITERACY IS ATTRACTIVE-- One flaw from 1991 didn’t hit me until the excellent YouTube creators over at Screen Junkies put the classic on blast with one of their scathing “Honest Trailers” this week.  The Beast was essentially just as much of a “violent, controlling, bad-mannered hairy dude” as Gaston.  In this new film, the Beast is educated and cultured instead, creating greater emotional and intellectual chemistry to match with the progressive Belle.  Face it, books are alluring and intelligence is sexy.

LESSON #2: SELFLESSNESS AS A CORE VIRTUE-- This lesson is a consistent central theme from every iteration of this fairy tale (including my review of Christophe Gans’s home country blockbuster take last year).  The Beast’s flaws of character that brought on his hexed metamorphosis came from selfishness that is amplified by the opposite traits found in Belle, a tender and brave person willing to give and sacrifice of herself for others.

LESSON #3: LEARNING HUMANITY-- Only after learning selflessness worthy of having someone else grow to care for him care for him and love him in return does the Beast complete his maturation.  He finds the deeper and internal compassion, sympathy, and tolerance required to be human through his the claws and fangs of his damned exterior.