When Gus Van Sant was asked why he decided to have his remake of the classic horror film Psycho be a shot for shot recreation of the original, the director responded, “So no one else would have to.” I can’t help but wonder if Bill Condon has a similar response planned to explain Beauty and the Beast. Then again, obligation is clearly second to brand expansion in this case.
As part of Disney’s latest money printing extravaganza that’s seen them do live-action remakes of some of their most beloved films, Beauty and the Beast is a film that stands as proof of their most prized jewel in a lofty crown of nostalgic favourites. The stone-cold classic remains the pinnacle of the much lauded 90s renaissance that brought the studio back from the brink of irrelevance and reignited a creative fire that kept many a child of the decade glued to the TV, myself included. In a filmography packed with iconic characters, images and stories, Beauty and the Beast may be the most memorable of the bunch, and for good reason. Why tinker with the classics? This effort doesn’t so much tinker as trace over those defining lines, like a passionate cover band that’s serviceable but nowhere near the original’s quality.
I get the feeling Condon and his team were given less creative freedom than, say, Kenneth Branagh and the Cinderella crew, a film that has a semblance of an identity separate from the original movie. Beauty and the Beast is clearly too valuable a property, and too beloved by many, to completely reinvent, and so much of the familiar beats are intact here. Yet there’s also an extra 20 minutes added for various reasons that don’t hold up to minor scrutiny. Scenes are added to explain various plot holes from the original, but they simply raise more questions: The reason the curse covers every inhabitant of the castle is covered, but it’s so flimsy and simply makes the enchantress seem like a cruel jerk; A redundant washing machine is included to explain the villagers’ mistrust of Belle but it’s a throwaway moment with no consequence on the story or characters; Gaston is given an extra scene with Maurice that weakens both characters and confuses what should be a simple moment of malice on his part. These moments could be overlooked in a stronger story, but when everything surrounding them is a carbon copy of the original story most of us have had imprinted on our brains for decades, they stand out more glaring than ever.
There are moments that made even this grinch smile: The rousing rendition of Gaston’s song is a much-needed boost of vitality to a film that’s often oddly sluggish, and there’s something to be said about Disney turning their most realistically terrifying villain into the most charming thing in the film. Luke Evans is hilariously boorish as everyone’s favourite misogynist, and he possesses one of the best voices in the ensemble, but the extra padding of the film leaves him defanged of his original spite and gaslighting power. Gaston is unnerving and all too real as a villain because every woman has encountered that brand of toxic masculinity in their lives, and they’ve probably had someone justify it as being a “real man”. Here, Gaston is a brute and a doofus but the film is too enamoured with him to make him dangerous, and an added motivation of post-war ennui and the temper it left him with is abandoned as quickly as it’s introduced. Josh Gad is clearly having the time of his life as LeFou, Gaston’s sassy gay hype-man, and ultimately nobody else in the vast ensemble, human or CGI, measures up to the pair.
The much-hyped gay moment with LeFou is a “yawn and you’ll miss it” let-down, all hype and no payoff, much like the “new feminist Belle” with her washing machine. The PR for this film was already frustrating without the film making it even more of a letdown.
That washing machine is a one scene melting pot of lost potential, a problem that hangs over this film like stormy weather. Belle invents a washing machine to take over from the strenuous labour and to give her time to teach a local girl to read. Both of these things are seen as proof of her status as the odd girl in town, and the machine is tossed away by the villagers, but it’s also tossed aside by the movie. We never hear or Belle’s ambitions as an inventor, or see proof of her genius in action, or even get a scene of her verbalizing her frustration with the town’s misogynistic views. Why add this element of supposed development if it’s never going to be developed upon? Belle’s motivation in the original film is vague but still distinct enough to create a journey for her to go on: Here, it renders her a total cipher, a matter not at all helped by a stilted and apathetic performance from Emma Watson. She’s so sluggish and bored that even when she’s talking to real people, it seems as though she’s on green-screen mode.
Watson’s performance stands in stark contrast to an effects-laden blowup at the fireworks factory that’s borderline pantomime in its execution. Everyone’s louder and broader, even when they’re household equipment (Ewan McGregor’s French accent was grounds for citizen’s arrest). Quieter moments of emotional release from the original are done away with, and even the Beast (Dan Stevens, surprisingly solid and neither hot as Beast or man) gets a vaguely operatic song to explain his feelings (all of the new songs are forgettable). There’s a lot of screaming for the cheap seats, so major kudos to Kevin Kline, who turns Maurice into a sweet, protective and supportive father with real emotional resonance. Gone is the crackpot eccentric of the original, and in his place is a parent who knows he can only offer his fiercely independent daughter so much. This is the clearest example of the film doing something different from the original, and there’s just not enough of it.
I’ve heard so much about this film from its cast and crew stressing its status as a story independent from the original, and one that’s been updated to expand upon those much-loved foundations, but little of that is seen in the film. It’s an aesthetically pleasing effort with stunning effects, production design and some striking costumes (the new yellow dress still sucks), and so many in the cast are trying very hard to make something fun here, but Beauty and the Beast cannot escape its predecessor, simply because it’s not been given an opportunity to do so. It’s a dishearteningly unambitious effort that feels utterly redundant. That’s not to say there aren’t things to enjoy – and my sold out screening ended with delighted applause from a group of young girls in the back rows – but if Disney wish to use their back catalogue for more than brand expansion, they’ll need to venture outside of their own castle.