There’s something interesting about Disney’s current live-action remakes of their classic animated material, as seen with 2015’s Cinderella, 2016’s The Jungle Book, and now Beauty and the Beast (and I suspect it will continue with their coming revisits to Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan). Where as other remakes or reboots generally try to redefine and/or reset your perception of a particular IP, Disney seems all too happy to remind you of and celebrate exactly what came before. These recent revisits try surprisingly little to distance themselves from their animated predecessors, to the point where they deliberately emulate the costumes, character personalities, visual aesthetic, and even the songs present in the originals. True, in a handful of ways these movies try to be different from their animated counterparts, such as with the revamped ending to last year’s The Jungle Book, but by and large Disney’s approach has been to not reinvent the wheel. Perhaps we should come up with a new term for this type of remake. Is nostalgia-make taken, yet?
Anyways, here we are in 2017 with the nostalgia-make of Beauty and the Beast, whose main purpose is to serve as a 160 million-dollar answer to the question of what the classic 1991 animated version would have looked like in live-action. I’d estimate that about 95% of this movie is more or less a beat-for-beat retread of the events from the 1991 version (the margin of error for that guess is roughly 5% since I haven’t watched the original in full since the closing years of the Clinton administration). It’s the same characters in the same setting doing the same thing and singing the same songs; and the few additions and differences that are present (such as expanded backstories on our characters or how Belle’s father Maurice is less silly here) are largely inconsequential to the overall story. If there’s one word that sums up this movie in relation to the original, it’s familiarity.
To be fair, this movie is mostly okay. The production design makes for an aesthetically pleasing world to look at, the songs (nicely choreographed) are still as catchy as they were twenty-six years ago, the effects, particularly in the Beast’s castle, make for good eye candy, and the characters are generally fun. The cast is good for the most part, too. Emma Watson hits the right notes as Belle, as does Luke Evans as Gaston. Josh Gad is funny as Gaston’s doting side kick, while Kevin Kline exercises surprising restraint and authority as Belle’s father. Oh, and the various actors and actresses — the likes of which include Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, and Ewan McGregor*, among others — who voice the enchanted objects in the Beast’s castle all acquit themselves honorably, even if they don’t quite reach the highs of their counterparts from the 1991 film. In short, I certainly can’t knock the movie for not making for an entertaining night at the theater.
I do have some issues with this picture, though. For starters, I was not that crazy about Dan Stevens as the Beast. His performance is oddly underpowered; he’s never as emotional as he should be, at least not compared to the 1991 version; and his few attempts at being dramatic fell flat for me. For lack of a better word, he’s dull, and I think another actor may have made the role better. More over, despite the fact that he ought to be the movie’s second lead, the Beast feels as though he’s been relegated to a supporting character in this film. Part of that is that he’s simply not on screen that much. Like the 1991 version, this movie has many characters and many set pieces; but it doesn’t manage them nearly as well. This version hurries the viewer from one big song or set piece to another and allocates too much time to what-ought-to-to be more minor characters and scenes, leaving comparatively little for genuine drama or character development. The result is that some aspects of the story, such as the Beast, just don’t get that much focus, which isn’t right.
Unfortunately, that also bleeds over into the relationship between Belle and the Beast not being allowed to develop naturally over the course of the film. Instead we get a more rushed and forced version that speeds through the moments from the original, but has neither the sense of timing nor the heart to really make it work. This is very problematic because this is the emotional core of the movie. Belle learning to love the Beast is why we ought to care about this story; and it’s surprisingly under-serviced here, drowned out by musical and computer-generated noise. We are not invested in these characters the way we were in the older version; and it’s frustrating that, given how much this film wants to ape its predecessor, it fumbles the most important part. It leaves the movie feeling quite a bit hollow.
I would liken this version of Beauty and the Beast to empty calories. Like last year’s The Jungle Book, it’s enjoyable enough in the moment, but ultimately it’s devoid of any real substance. Further more, to the extent that this movie is entertaining and good, it’s mostly because it’s emulating good parts from another film. It’s good the way a cover band is good; but it has no real identity of its own; and it’s debatable how well it works without the original to lean on. I guess there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s telling of a certain lack of ambition with Disney’s live-action remakes. As long as they mainly stick to copying the animated versions as best as they can, replicating the scenes and characters and songs that everybody loves, and as long as they are just good enough, they don’t have to provide that meaningful of an experience; they don’t have to really stand on their own; and they don’t really have to be that great. Such an approach to filmmaking can have bad consequences.
Having said that, I have to keep perspective here. To the extent that this movie is solid enough entertainment, I can recommend it as something worth going to see. But I really do worry about the trend so far with Disney’s remakes and what may come of it in the future, and I can only hope that I’m proven wrong with subsequent entries in this new wave of Disney nostalgia-makes.
*In a truly weird but forgivable quirk of the movie, despite the fact that it explicitly takes place in France, Ewan McGregor’s character Lumiére (the energetic and outgoing candle) is the only one to speak with a French accent. Everyone else speaks with an English accent. Come to think of it, Lumiére may also have been the only to speak with a French accent in the 1991 original. I can’t remember, but I guess it really doesn’t matter.