Beauty and the Beast, 2017.
Directed by Bill Condon.
Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Ewan McGregor, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Kline, Sonoya Mizuno, Hattie Morahan, and Audra McDonald.
An adaptation of the Disney fairy tale about a monstrous-looking prince and a young woman who fall in love.
The Disney devoted can stop their hand-wringing and let out a sigh of relief; the big-budget, live-action adaptation of the beloved, Best Picture-nominated 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast is, for the most part, a rousing success, and while imperfect, re-affirms how seriously the House of Mouse is taking what could so easily have been a craven money-making exercise.
You know the story so it hardly bears much repeating; an arrogant young prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed for his callousness, transformed into a grizzly beast, and the only means to break the curse is to win the love of another before the final petal from a magic rose hits the ground. When the beautiful Belle (Emma Watson) arrives at the Beast’s castle, she finds her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) imprisoned for trespassing, and opts to take his place in order to gain her father’s freedom. Slowly but surely, love then blossoms between the Beast and his prisoner.
To an extent, updating a film so revered is a catch 22 situation; some will expect a subversive retooling to reflect contemporary society, while others will balk at the mere whisper of a single lyric or musical note being altered. To that end, Beauty and the Beast does an impressive job in a tough spot, for while it still struggles to reconcile the inherent creepiness of the central romance – something that’s only exacerbated in this live-action form – a lot of the minor story changes resolve some of the original’s dubious logic and simply make a lot more sense.
These changes might rankle the more militant fans of the film’s predecessor, but it’s worth at least trying to be open-minded and accepting the movie on its own terms as an ambitious attempt to recapture that same magical feeling in a more grounded, “realistic” way.
On the production-side, this is a gorgeous film through and through, with the visual effects, costumes and sets superbly capturing the feel of the original, even if the French village set where Belle resides is lit and blocked to resemble a soundstage with a capital S. The movie’s most technically complex component, the Beast himself, may be too handsome and not grotesque enough for some tastes, and there’s certainly an uncanny element to him, but with all that in mind, the CGI combines extremely well with Dan Stevens’ own compellingly tortured performance.
The iconic songs are meanwhile lovingly recalled here, perhaps most majestically “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest”, the latter unfurled amid a lavish visual effects light-show that also makes terrific use of Ewan McGregor’s anthropomorphic candelabra Lumière. It is these moments that will likely have casual and die-hard fans alike totally enraptured; an assault on the senses it may often be, but a glorious, ultimately even affecting one. Don’t be surprised if the music and below-the-line crafts pick up a few Oscar nominations next year, especially given the movie’s inevitable place as one of 2017’s highest-grossing films.
It is far from perfect, though, and perhaps the most troublesome aspect is identified within the first five minutes. Emma Watson is a charming actress and certainly lives up to the “beauty” part of the title, but a natural singer she is not, and it’s distractingly clear throughout that her voice has been heavily auto-tuned in post-production to produce a more desirable result. Unfortunately it ends up sounding garishly, robotically out-of-place, and while it’s somewhat understandable that Disney couldn’t resist casting her regardless, couldn’t she have just been dubbed over by a professional singer instead?
Thankfully Watson’s shaky performance is an outlier from the ensemble, which is otherwise uniformly excellent. McGregor, Ian McKellen (as cantankerous clock Cogsworth) and Emma Thompson (the kindly Mrs. Potts) do fantastically vibrant work in highly entertaining voice-over roles, though it’s Luke Evans’ arrogant grump Gaston who takes home MVP honours. Concerns about Evans’ less-imposing stature be damned, he’s clearly having a blast playing such a repellent goof, and it’s an absolute delight to watch. Josh Gad is also a hoot as his sidekick LeFou, controversially emphasising the gay subtext of the character in amusing fashion that’s keenly irritated the less open-minded among us.
The film is also rather on the long side for what it is, clocking in at 129 minutes, a full three-quarters-of-an-hour longer than the animated version. The first act is in no hurry at all and the middle sags occasionally, while the bonkers third reel is as pacy and energetic as the entire film should’ve been. If you’re hoping this added time might be devoted to making a more convincing romantic pairing out of Belle and Beast, however, the love story still feels pretty forced, though the film’s sheer frothy force-of-will and the joyousness of the songs makes it easy enough to swallow down the “because fairy tale” excuse.
Beauty and the Beast is directed by Bill Condon, a fascinating jack-of-all-trades filmmaker who has dabbled in horror (Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh), Oscar-winning high-drama (Gods and Monsters) and even two entries into the Twilight franchise (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Parts 1 & 2), so he’s a solid if fairly unadventurous pick for fare like this. There’s little directorial stamp on the end-product, which perhaps is Disney’s prerogative moving forward, but aside from some overly curt editing choices, the end product is thoroughly ravishing all the same.
It’s hard to imagine most Disney fans not being enchanted by what is a rock solid if hardly classic re-telling on the level of, say, last year’s The Jungle Book (which arguably even bettered the original). Beauty and the Beast hits all the key notes you’d expect while fixing a few of the original’s less-logical affectations that wouldn’t fly so well in a modern live-action movie. Sure, the new songs are nowhere near as good and the film basically works in spite of Emma Watson, but the overall heft and epic sweep makes it a mostly intoxicating delight.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.