There goes the baker with his tray, like always, and there goes another attempt by Disney to turn one of their hand-drawn princesses into a flesh-and-blood ode to past artistry. While other recent remakes have worked wonders by deviating from their source material (here’s to you, Pete’s Dragon!) and the Princess canon just added a landmark chapter in Moana, the attempt to adapt one of the studio’s most cherished properties has once again resulted in fuzzily forgettable fairytale fudging.
Move over, 2015 Cinderella! 2017 Beauty and the Beast is now here to remind audiences how much better this movie was back when it was animated over a quarter of a century ago. Of course, no one, not even the most clueless and hopelessly optimistic of studio execs, likely ever thought that Bill Condon, the director who went from Oscar winner to Twilight Saga chauffeur, was going to best the 1991 version that back then became the first animated feature ever nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
Setting their sights a tad lower than that is entirely acceptable, but it’s best to keep this respectable, no? Condon’s Beauty is, well, ugly, which is pretty baffling considering the cost it clearly took to bring the story to live-action life. The sets are cramped, the CGI is shoddy, and the various designs are irritatingly overblown. It’s a far cry from the iconic imagery of the earlier version. There's poetry in the visuals of the original where now there are only pixels.
A significant obstacle for Condon is not merely the previous version’s legacy, but specifically what makes that movie tick. It roundly rejects the very suggestion of improvement or even reconfiguration by simply being extremely strong in familiar areas. There’s no narrative ingenuity in Disney’s original Beauty and the Beast. It’s just a straightforward tale told well.
The 1991 pic is significant in terms of the Disney canon because its heroine has more personality and gumption than the majority of her Princess predecessors. Otherwise, the movie is beloved simply for maximizing the potency of every onscreen element. The music is some of Disney’s best, the animation and accompanying character designs are top notch, and the plot remains compact even while chronicling a love story that has a lot of emotional ground to cover.
The creative team behind that movie elevated the pieces of their well-established template to make an old sensation feel fresh and marked a major milestone of the company’s 1989-1999 Renaissance period in the process. While it’s not as narratively clever as The Little Mermaid, which mounts a delightful twist on the love at first sight trope, nor as brilliantly subversive as Pocahontas, which adds complexity and unpredictability to every turn of the traditional Disney track, the ’91 Beauty and the Beast succeeds as a glowing reminder of how expertly and exquisitely assembled a Disney fairytale can be.
Watching the 2017 version, my feeling was often not how much better this could have been, but how terrible an idea this was from the beginning. How could the “Be Our Guest” and climactic castle-storming action sequences be anything more than a bunch of CGI crap flying around the screen, smashing into other CGI crap while bursts of colour attack our eyeballs? Disney’s approach to these remakes is not to seek enhancement, but enlargement. Everything must be bigger, longer, louder, and the added details of photorealistic digital effects mean only more clutter and busyness on the screen instead of some surreal sampling of life-imitating-art oddness.
Disney’s best fairytale adaptations have always acknowledged and respected the simplicity of fairytales in general and kept their stories tight and focused as a result, but Condon’s Beauty and the Beast has a running time that exceeds two hours and feels like four. There is no flow to any of it, no clear sense of pace, and what once was left to the imagination is now the victim of bulky exposition.
The acting is certainly an issue as well. While the 2015 Cinderella remake was a misstep on most levels, Lily James was an absolute delight in the titular role. There are no positive adjectives worth applying to Emma Watson's performance as Belle, though. She certainly suits the name, but she's as wooden as ever when it comes time to speak and her singing has been so electronically tampered with that it’s as though the block of wood just magically downloaded some iTunes tracks.
Singing in a Disney musical is somewhat important and a key component of the movie’s emotional identity, so while a recognizable on-camera actress was likely never going to make those high notes soar as gorgeously as the original’s Paige O’Hara, it would be nice if Belle didn’t transform into some sort of Stepfordian Wife every time the score picks up.
Watson doesn't get much help from her co-stars, either, which again calls into question the entire approach here and the creative dead end this effort epitomizes. Dan Stevens is merely passable as the Beast, but at least he can blame some of that on Condon and the animators, who really did him no favours with a flat design and overly obvious CGI. Considering what could have been achieved with makeup and what was achieved with photorealistic animals in last spring's remake of The Jungle Book, the Beast's look feels weak and underwhelming at all times.
Luke Evans appears to be having some fun as Gaston, but he plays the role too comfortably in the middle, still boorish, yet capable of calming down and even feigning self-reflection. Gaston is peeved throughout the movie and gets to belt out his couple musical numbers with some low-key gusto, but he’s nowhere near the absolute monster he was in the animated version.
Disney’s original treatment of Gaston was so fascinatingly dark that he became one of the most despicable beings in the entire canon, the true antithesis of the Beast and his cursed physique. He was the perfect villain for that story because he acted as an alternate representative of the title. He was both Beauty and a Beast.
This new Gaston isn’t ever extreme enough to inspire the disgust and hatred the character deserves and while the blame can be reasonably split between Evans and the ill-conceived changes by screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, there’s also the nagging feeling that this is further proof such a character works best as a cartoon, where exaggeration begins with the first stroke.
Naturally, some of the still-animated characters work better than the live-action ones here. Ewan McGregor’s French accent would probably sound off to a Martian, but he brings a hint of charming personality to Lumiere and shares some lightly amusing banter with Ian McKellan’s Cogsworth. Gugu Mbatha-Raw has little to say (and less to do) as Plumette, but she brings a coquettish quality to her role that actually matches up with the original version. These are small triumphs in a mostly struggling cast, though.
Every other aspect of the movie struggles equally, if not more, to add something worthwhile to this makeover experience. It’s nice that Condon got legendary composer Alan Menken to return, but with Menken comes several new songs that are a chore to listen to as they unnecessarily pad the running time. Less is most certainly more when it comes to musicalizing fairytales.
For all of the movie’s blunders, I can’t help but be left with the feeling that this is about as good as it was ever going to get. With nowhere to go but down from the original, this remake took on a difficult task and arduously emphasized the difficulty with a whole castle’s worth of bad decisions. Still, Disney almost always finds its audience. Want to sift through the digital rubble of this overbearingly unattractive retread to find some semblance of the briskly beautiful and cozily compact animated version buried deep inside? Be my guest.