Tale as old as time…
This one is difficult for me to write. I wanted to love this movie. I was born in 1984 so the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin era of Disney make up my childhood movies, the films I’ve seen 100 times and hold a special place in my heart. While there may be other animated movies that I consider to be my personal favorites (I love Aladdin and The Incredibles), Beauty and the Beast may well be the most perfect animated feature ever made and one that easily lends itself to live action adaptations on the big screen or the stage. Knowing that opinion I have of the 1991 classic, you’ll understand why it pains me to say that I did not like this movie.
Before getting into specifics I do want to point out that the film is not bad. If this was the only version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast there would be rave reviews about the music, characters, etc. However, it is impossible not to compare it to the 1991 Academy Award nominated animated film, and when doing so it simply can’t measure up. I did not care for any of the new songs and they stood out compared to Howard Ashman’s spectacular original score. It seemed odd not to include Ashman’s “Human Again” that was cut from the animated feature’s theatrical release, but added back in for the DVD and Broadway versions. That song was better than any of the new ones added. Despite being a cartoon, I also felt the 1991 version has a tighter script, more logical character motivations and better singers. Having each action beat of the original so vivid in my mind (I watched it shortly before seeing this in theaters), I couldn’t get past how the live action feature was inferior in each of these areas and didn’t offer anything new that made it seem worth the conversion (Maleficent changed the point of view and Jungle Book had the incredible creation of photo-realistic animals and environments). An aspect that bugged me was the decision to make many of the “money shots” out of focus. When Belle first stepped into her room in Beast’s castle, the camera pans out to show off how luxurious it is, but keeps the room’s walls and furnishings blurry. Again, during the “Beauty and the Beast” song where the duo dances together, much of the extravagant ballroom remains hazy, even when the camera pulls away from the actors to, seemingly, display the room. I’m curious as to the thinking behind that creative decision.
One of the first things my wife and I did after watching this in theaters was re-watch the original on Blu-ray. Due to our love of the cartoon and how fresh our disappointment was with the adaptation, we were overly critical of the new version and much of this viewing was spent complaining about how the changes were not as good as the animated offering. Yeah, I know, we were “those people”. Honestly, it was more of an attempt to remind ourselves what we loved about Beauty and the Beast and what got us hyped for the live action movie in the first place. I haven’t done this in a review before, but to give you an idea of changes that were made that didn’t work for me I’ll break down one sequence in the film – Maurice’s imprisonment. The following paragraph will have minor spoilers so feel free to skip ahead if you haven’t seen the movie yet and do not want to be clued into some of the differences from the animated film.
In the animated movie Maurice enters the castle because he lost his horse after being attacked by wolves and was getting sick out in the cold. The enchanted servants lead him to a fire and provide him with a blanket and tea. He was fascinated by the talking, live household objects. The Beast storms in, terrifying both Maurice and the servants, and imprisons him for trespassing. Belle finds him, is shocked but brave at the sight of the Beast, and offers to take his place. The Beast agrees, has Maurice sent out without the opportunity to say goodbye and thus starts a shaky relationship with Belle. In contrast, the live action version has Maurice wander into the castle and starts picking thing up and randomly eating food he sees prepared for someone else in the dining room. He sees a tea-cup talking and his reaction is akin to “hmm… well that was kinda weird” and decides to leave. Before he does he cuts a rose for Belle and the Beast imprisons him for being a thief. Once Belle arrives, neither are scared or even particularly shocked as the sight of the Beast and even talk back to him with regards to Maurice’s imprisonment for taking a single flower. Belle takes his place and the Beast allows them to say goodbye before sending him off. This brief sequence gives a weaker introduction to the enchanted characters, doesn’t portray the Beast as an intimidating presence, paints Maurice as a thief instead of a fool and/or crazy (besides taking a rose, who actually goes into a stranger’s dining room and eats their food?), and radically alters the starting dynamic between Belle and the Beast. I’m sure others will have a different opinion on that scene and the movie, but I felt every choice that was different from the animated film was not just an alternate take but also inferior to the original.
The live action movie is 45 minutes longer than the cartoon version. The added scenes to pad the running time felt like just that, additional padding that did not add much to the plot. The sequences about Belle’s mother felt unnecessary and did not enhance the story or Belle’s character arc in any meaningful way. Furthermore, in addition to the mirror from the animated film the enchantress have Beast a second amazing gift that seemed odd because it was remarkably generous for someone who was cursing him and since the only real purpose it served was to allow this new plot point to take place. The enchantress cursed him and the mirror from the animated film played into that because it allows him to glimpse but not experience the outside world, absolute torture for a Prince used to experiencing all the finer things in life. This change undercut the significance of the mirror. On the flip side, one thing I enjoyed was an expansion of Belle and Beast’s relationship. The first film simply gave a brief montage during the song “Something There” while the adaptation provided additional scenes where they talked and connected. Their relationship felt more organic this time around and I believe that they could have grown to care for each other.
From a performance standpoint, Emma Watson was bland and unmemorable in the lead. The role could have allowed for a full array of emotions with the loss of her father, the discovery of why her father left her mother, awe at encountering an enchanted castle, etc., but she remained stoic for the most part. I think it was a conscious decision on the part of director Bill Condon and Ms. Watson to demonstrate that Belle was a strong character by making her appear unfazed by her extraordinary interactions, but instead she came across as bland and it took away from the wonder of her surroundings. Her singing also could not compare to the wonderful voice work by Paige O’Hara in the animated film.
The standouts for me were Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad a LeFou. Even though I have heard that Evans has a stage background, I have only seen him in films such as the Hobbit, Fast and the Furious franchise and Girl on the Train. Seeing him singing and dancing was a major departure and he was great. Evans might not have the towering physical presence of the animated version of Gaston, but he made up for it in masculine bravado. It is one of those performances that immediately put him on my radar to check out anything he does in the future. Gad played a different LeFou from the cartoon. He has the same animated personality and still clearly idolizes Gaston, but when it comes to Gaston’s villainous decisions, LeFou remains at odds with himself throughout the film. Gad brings a tenderness to a role that originally was goofy comic relief. This is probably a good place to address the gay controversy surrounding the movie. It is clearly the intent of the director/writer that this iteration of LeFou is gay, but I do not believe it would have even been brought up had it not been for the director’s comments about “an exclusively gay moment” in the film. My quick commentary- it was not “in your face” or a heavy-handed agenda creating a prominent LGBT character in a blockbuster film aimed at children, but I do have a problem with the need to change a character’s sexual orientation in a well-known property simply to manufacture a talking point (similar to Sulu becoming gay in Star Trek Beyond last year). It was minor but completely unnecessary. Many people clearly have strong opinions on this and my review is not the place for me to delve into morals or the cultural impact of this decision, but I welcome any dialogue I the discussion board below (feel free to share any of your thoughts on the film, just be respectful).
Beauty and the Beast had a massive opening weekend and is well on its way to raking in over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. My guess is that this will make the most out of any of Disney’s live action adaptations, and believe me they have many lined up. To sum up my thoughts on the movie, I really wanted to love it. This adaptation of Beauty and the Beast keeps most of the action beats of the cartoon in place and does not stray too far from that movie. However, apart from evoking a sense of nostalgia, it does not add much to the Beauty and the Beast tale and falls short of the original. My one sentence review: This version is by no means a bad film and will likely be loved by those new to the material, but was a disappointment for me and failed to recapture the magic of the 1991 classic.