Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon, 2017) 2½ out of 4 stars
While there are a number of things to recommend within this live-action retelling of “a tale as old as time,” including many fine performances and the beautiful visual effects, the movie, as a whole, feels strangely inert. Made as if at half-tempo, its songs performed more slowly than in Disney Studio’s 1991 animated version – of which this is a more or less exact copy, albeit with significant new backstory and added songs – this Beauty and the Beast features a plot stuffed with filler and, at 129 minutes, not only feels long, but is exactly 45 minutes longer than its cartoon cousin. For an expensive movie marketed to families with young children, this is remarkable, and not in a good way. Also, in 2017, it seems (to this reviewer, anyway) that the appeal of tales of noblesse oblige, or of women falling in love with brutish men who initially menace them, has dimmed (or should have). Then again, in an age of billionaire populism, perhaps this is Disney’s way of embracing the new old paradigm.
First published as a fairy tale in France in 1740 (written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve) as “La belle et la bête,” it chronicles the adventures of the young daughter of a merchant as she first is imprisoned by, and then falls in love with, a local nobleman long-ago bewitched and transformed into a monstrous beast. Her love for him eventually ends his enchantment, and they unite in happy harmony at the end. Perhaps the most celebrated of the story’s cinematic versions is French director Jean Cocteau’s lyrically haunting 1946 movie, starring Josette Day and Jean Marais, but by far the most commercially successful one is Disney’s original adaptation, which was also their first feature to use digital animation (combined with traditional cel animation). With songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (who died the year the movie came out), the film was the second in Disney’s emerging artistic and box-office comeback (starting with The Little Mermaid, in 1989) after a few decades of mediocre fare. And now we find ourselves in 2017 with the latest effort by the company to recycle its past animated triumphs as live-action confections, following Maleficent, Cinderella and The Jungle Book.
Emma Watson (still best known as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films) stars as our heroine, Belle, and she brings all the right qualities to the role, sweet and strong in equal measure. As her father, Kevin Kline (My Old Lady) is appropriately befuddled, but otherwise nondescript. Luke Evans (The Girl on the Train), as Gaston, is blustery enough to play the narcissistic villain, but it’s his sidekick LeFou, played by Josh Gad (The Wedding Ringer), who is the real attraction of the duo, comically obsequious but not entirely a fool. And let’s not forget Dan Stevens (The Ticket), who spends most of the movie as a digitized creature, as the beast. The rest of the cast includes a large gathering of well-known folks whom, like the beast, we never actually see until the very end, since they mostly provide the voices of the anthropomorphized inanimate objects in the beast’s castle. These include: Ewan McGregor (Miles Ahead), as Lumière, the candlestick; Ian McKellen (Mr. Holmes) as Cogsworth, the clock; and Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) as Mrs. Potts, the teapot. Notable among the many other supporting players are quite a few actors of color who, anachronistic as their appearance may be in 18th-century France, still offer up a pleasantly diverse set of faces that nod in the direction of an “It’s a small world, after all” ethos that Disney all-too-often has ignored in the past.
If you are even halfway familiar with either the fairy tale, Cocteau’s film or, especially, the 1991 blockbuster, then you will find few narrative surprises here. Belle’s father, lost on the road one night and pursued by wolves, takes refuge in the only shelter available: a seemingly abandoned – or is it? – castle of once-obvious grandeur. There, after discovering enchanted creatures within – inanimate objects within the house that talk and move on their own – he makes the mistake of plucking a rose, which he had promised to bring back to Belle, from the garden outside, prompting the beast that rules the castle to take him prisoner. But when Belle – a lonely girl, smarter than the rest and prone to reading – sees her father’s horse return without him, she persuades it to take her back whence it came. And there she meets the beast – actually a prince whose arrogance towards a local beggar woman caused her to curse him with a foul enchantment – and against the wishes of her father, exchanges herself for him. It could all work out, however, since the spell that lies upon the prince and his servants can be broken by that omnipresent fairy-tale antidote, true love. If only the ghastly Gaston, who wants Belle for himself, doesn’t get in the way.
In many respects delightful– though “live action,” as it was in the case of The Jungle Book, is a miscategorization of a film so dominated by digital effects – the movie is hardly as magical as its predecessors. The whole affair feels tired, sans active raison d’être beyond that of making money. But why is Disney so intent on cannibalizing its own library? At least Maleficent took a revisionist pen to its source, Sleeping Beauty. In the short term, I understand the profit motive, but in the long term, do these actions not diminish the value of any one property? Time will tell, and since this is a tale about time, or at least its passage, we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, flawed as is new film, it’s enjoyable enough. Oh, and have you heard about the “gay controversy” surrounding the movie? I was expecting LeFou to propose to Gaston, based on the reports (which would have been fine, except that Gaston is an evil jerk). But no, there’s not a whole lot there to stir reproach from even the most homophobic viewer. If only. That would have given the film the novelty it so desperately needs.