Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Dir: Bill Condon
Any remake runs the risk of making you want to watch the original. When your predecessor is as good as the 1991 classic is, that chance was incredibly high and so it’s unfair to say that it’s a failure based on those grounds alone. However, a remake needs to ‘add’ something of value, not always literally in terms of added scenes or extra narrative threads, more often in terms of emotional depth, relevance, or even adding clarity through simplification as taking something unnecessary away can give a precision that the earlier adaptation was lacking. I don’t think this version of the classic tale does much of that at all, as when it gives a little with one hand, it takes more away with the other, leaving a deficit easily filled by the enduring animated classic.
This is simply a live-action retelling of the Disney classic with most of the songs and almost exactly the same story about Belle (Emma Watson, ‘Harry Potter and the… all of them’), a young woman held captive in an enchanted castle by a man-beast (Dan Stevens, ‘Downton Abbey’, ‘Legion’). Hopes run high in the castle household that Belle could develop feelings for her captor that would transform their lives, while her aspiring suitor Gaston (Luke Evans, ‘Fast & Furious 6‘, ‘The Girl on the Train’) believes that by hunting the beast he will finally get the one trophy that alludes him.
Firstly, unless you particularly take issue at it being a remake or hate some aspect with great ferocity, I think it would be hard to not like this to some extent, as essentially it’s quite enjoyable but for all the reasons the beloved animation is. There’s so much to work with thanks to the animated film it could never be completely terrible as the characters, story, songs, even lines of dialogue are just transposed, inherently bringing with them at least some of what made Disney’s first telling of the story so good. Being such as it is, a very close remake, I may touch on what would otherwise be considered spoilers in this review, though they are only such if you’ve not seen the animated classic and if that’s the case, what are you doing reading this? Go, now, watch it, you’ll thank me!
The 1991 animated original is greatly beloved by many, including myself. I fondly remember enjoying the audiotape story that included ‘Be Our Guest’ which I would rewind and play over and over again. It always had some of the best songs of any Disney classic, so seeing those songs being performed again had me smiling, as did many other moments that nicely highlight the charm and humor that was always there, though maybe not as prominent in the animation. To make it a little different there are genuine attempts to add something to this retelling and sure enough, a little extra is added yet that not in a way that makes it a completely distinct retelling.
There’s great effort taken to expand more fully upon the lives of the house staff who are also enchanted like the prince/beast. This is a good decision, they were always more than just ‘supporting’ characters, with all the potential to add much detail and colour to the story. While it at times again the film veers just a little too far and elongated in its efforts, mostly I thought it does have the desired effect of showing that they’re unfairly caught up in the consequences of the prince’s actions and just as doomed as he is if he can’t change.
I immediately liked Emma Watson for the role when the casting was announced, her ‘English rose’ looks somehow work perfectly for a naturally beautiful bookworm. However, at times I sadly felt like her performance was lacking heart, a little short in enthusiasm or intimacy. When other performances were giving it their all, she seemed at times at what appeared to me to be over-rehearsed and merely delivering lines and actions exactly as required. There is an odd absence of feeling, more noticeable when sharing screen time with another character who’s emoting more, and a little flat when on her own. One scene turned very ‘Sound of Music’ when I thought she could very easily have launched into singing “the hills are alive…”, which was a huge distraction. As for her character though, Belle is quite well written here, with a little work done on highlighting how intelligent and independent she is, trying to show that she’s a good role model for young women.
There’s the most perfect casting with Gaston (Luke Evans) and LeFou (Josh Gad) who could have been the focus of a whole film of their own, with screen time greatly increased here anyway, probably reflecting this realization on the part of the filmmakers. Josh Gad, in particular, stands out as one of the highlights of the entire film. He delivers his lines in a way that builds upon the animated character so well, actually adding to the part enough to make him a lead character, not the side-kick he started out as. The quality of his performance was largely overlooked in promotion and reviews, lost in a flurry of debate and controversy that the director Bill Condon sparked when he, I must say, greatly overstated the subtext of one moment in the film, a fleeting moment that would’ve been no issue if it wasn’t for being flagged in an interview and every single piece from then on, overwhelming the promotion and coverage completely. It’s a shame because not enough credit was then given to Gad’s brilliant performance which takes a ‘goofy’ character and makes him hugely charismatic, quite charming and enthralling.
Dan Stevens has the huge task of taking on the role of the beast, with this film giving a little more time to his pre-transformation life. When as the beast, the CGI overlaid on him is generally very good, but I regularly felt like they could’ve gone more ‘Wolfman’ in the execution of the effect, with the ability existing to achieve a similar (and far more immersive) look through physical effects and makeup. He has a new song that’s so on the nose it completely overlooks (read “ruins”) the original deftness in a moment of great significance. All the emotions and poignancy in the original was expressed with the score and a simple roar, here a whole song has been written to express far less powerfully what that scene already did perfectly before.
Some of these newly added parts didn’t work well for me at all. There are new songs that fell completely flat, I don’t really think they were needed as there are so many brilliant songs already but new compositions were clearly added to have something eligible for the ‘Best Original Song’ Oscar, which didn’t lead to a nomination. New scenes and bits of backstory are added to help give depth and complexity that are of mixed success, most felt a little unnecessary as the points were clear enough and didn’t need overdoing. Some added lines especially felt like a line too much that voiced previously clear but unspoken subtext, such as the song in place of a roar.
There are a lot of moments where characters seemed to oddly float and fly. Yes, there’s a huge magical element to the film so that shouldn’t be unexpected, yet it wouldn’t have suffered at all from being slightly more grounded, literally. The parts I’m specifically referring to are in scenes where the jumping shouldn’t have been quite so effortless. There are also some shots, including the opening, that were clearly done for maximum 3D effect, an attempt that was redundant when I saw it as 3D screening was changed to 2D on the day due to technical difficulties, which was met with no complaints from my little group as well as others in attendance, I saw nobody request a refund or leave afterwards bemoaning the lack of 3D. I couldn’t see many shots that would have benefitted greatly from an extra dimension, though there definitely some characters that would.
To end on a strong positive note, what I realized most while watching this version is that the score is gorgeous. While the vocal songs are performed well (though rarely better), it’s the new arrangement of the original score that shines through and reminded me how fantastic it always was. It’s something I never appreciated when I was younger, most children wouldn’t, but in this film it proudly stands out as one of the best things about the entire production. You can be certain that if it were new it would be up for an Academy Award for best score, but Alan Menken already won for it with the animated version and now I fully appreciate why. Sadly though, I’ve not enjoyed listening to the soundtrack of this film, the vocal songs on the soundtrack release are in the form of the audio from the film with all the other sounds and dialogue intact, not nicely recorded specifically for the album and it actually sounds a little silly when listened to without those visuals. It’s a real shame as I would’ve really liked to listen to the performances of the songs again, something I do after seeing most musicals, it’s an odd choice.
While not a brilliant retelling of the story, it’s not a complete mess, nor does it ruin the memories of the first, it just doesn’t do anything particularly special with it. I do feel like I could watch it again and I know many who have, though I feel in absolutely no rush to do so.
‘Beauty and the Beast’ did fantastically well at the international Box Office and has no doubt justified Disney’s doubling down on this method of remaking their classics. It’s available on VOD and home media for you to see for yourself, though so is the animated version and if you can only afford to get one, then go for that, it has greater rewatch value. Now nominated for best production design and costume design at both the BAFTAs and the Academy Awards it has a chance at a win or two though I’m not seeing it as the frontrunner.