Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty and the Beast

Rating

Director

Bill Condon

Screenplay

Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos

Length

129 min.

Starring

Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Hattie Morahan, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Nathan Mack, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw

MPAA Rating

PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images

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Review

Taking one of the most cherished animated features in history and turning it into a live-action spectacle comes with a huge set of risks. It must not only pay tribute to the original, but it must branch out and expand the universe in ways that are both unexpected and limitedly controversial. Beauty and the Beast, the first animated feature ever nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards was the basis for Disney’s latest attempt to capitalize on its existing properties in a series of animation-to-live-action adaptations that have tackled everything from Cinderella to The Jungle Book so far.

The film was never exactly a difficult prospect for adaptation. Disney had already turned it into a highly successful stage musical, which added songs to the production that, unfortunately, don’t make it into the new big screen version. Instead, Disney has commissioned the original film’s composer, Alan Menken, and longtime Menken-Disney collaborator Tim Rice to craft four new tunes (technically five by turning the opening narration into a song) for the production. While it’s clear Rice was never the wordsmith that the late original lyricist Howard Ashman was, he does create one new song that equals the great tracks in the original film: “Evermore.” Beast’s lamentation is a profound meditation on his own isolation and heartache, giving the character a tune that suits him well and finally gives the character a broader musical voice that wasn’t previously in the production.

As a production, director Bill Condon may want to suggest to production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jacqueline Durran to prepare Oscar speeches. While the original film created indelible images, Greenwood and Durran bring them to life in ways one might never have imagined. Greenwood takes asymmetry to a brilliant degree with a castle façade that features stonework vines “tearing apart” the structure. Durran, with one scene at the beginning of the film, creates enough elegant white frocks that make many period and fantasy dramas from the last three decades seem quaint and antiquated. There are plenty more where that came from with a village filled with peasant fashions and a finale resplendent with additional gowns and attire. Together, their flowing, sumptuous design work is some of the best seen on film in recent years.

This is a musical production and in addition to being able to act, the cast must also be able to sing. Emma Watson leads the cast as the free-thinking Belle, a conscientious young woman whose father, played by a fantastic Kevin Kline, is looked on with disdain by the more commonplace rabble of the city. Watson has a solid voice, which is bolstered by great music. There are moments when her performance feels a tad inauthentic, such as those that require her to feign sorrowful emotion, but she carries it off well enough to support her casting.

The other live actors that give voice to the characters include Luke Evans, an actor whose past work would infrequently suggested that he could adequately evoke the lecherous Gaston. Not only is he the surprising breakout star of the whole affair with his leering, cold, calculating villain, but he also lends it a stirring, evocative voice. Josh Gad is barely his equal and having done a lot of theater work in the past, it’s strange that Lefou is as inconsequential as he is.

Straddling the line between live-action and motion capture, Dan Stevens is a strong performer lending more vocal emotion and depth to the character than the visual effects department could effectively evoke with their overlaid beast animations. Ewan McGregor is given plenty to do as the wise-cracking, effervescent candlestick Lumière, most notably in the raucous Busby Berkeley-inspired number “Be Our Guest,” which was done far better in the original film. He’s not unaccustomed to the task having done phenomenal work in Moulin Rouge 16 years ago, but something here doesn’t feel quite the same. That’s probably because comparing him to the original Jerry Orbach makes him seem modestly weak.

The same can be said of Ian McKellen taking over the role of Cogsworth from the inimitable David Ogden Stiers; Emma Thompson as a dispiritingly pale shade of the original Angela Lansbury, who understood how to bring emotional elegance and depth to the title song “Beauty and the Beast;” and Broadway legend Audra McDonald bringing too much gravitas to a role originated by Jo Anne Worley, who infused the wardrobe with humor and bravado. The one character that is expanded on from the original film and done with aplomb is the feather duster Plumette embodied here by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t all immensely talented and well suited to the material, it’s simply that the film had to compare itself to the unparalleled casting of the original. Such comparisons are expected, but unfair.

Condon proves he was the right man for the job. Having previously directed the big screen musical adaptation of Dreamgirls, and written the Best Picture winning Chicago, Condon understands that in order to succeed as an adaptation of a stage musical, you must expand and broaden the material, something that’s even more crucial when the prior adaptation is also of an existing feature film. There are new details, changes to plot elements, and the construction of larger, more beautiful, more expansive worlds that help to differentiate the new production from past endeavors. Condon’s efforts are tremendous and while the sweeping cameras that dominate several scenes are sometimes excessive, the bountiful, jaunty score is given its sufficient and rewarding due.

Beauty and the Beast has some great elements, but failing to hold a candlestick to the original animated film was to be expected. Even a director of Condon’s talents wasn’t going to be able to effectively and adequately evoke the wonder of the original. However, this adaptation stands as a fascinating and compelling rendition of the classic story and while it may never reach the level of admiration or acclaim of the original, it stands perfectly well on its own.

Spoiler Discussion And Additional Commentary

The original Disney animated feature was heralded for creating a stronger, more authentic heroine in Belle. She was a bookish, caring young woman who rejected society’s requirements that she be little more than chattel for whatever boorish oaf was presented to her. 26 years later, the new film adds measurably to her independence, keeping that fierce strength while putting her in additional positions where she can be spat upon by those who see her as upending societal norms and excelling at being a potent independent woman.

It still relies heavily on fairy tale tropes that all women must marry, but that’s a byproduct of the 1740 source material. Changing up that aspect of the original fairy tale, or film, or stage musical would have felt out of place and unnecessarily forced. They do their best to make the connection organic, largely by increasing and improving Belle and Beast’s mutual admiration for literature, especially compared to the original where Beast was illiterate.

The film also tackles another once taboo subject that so far has been underdeveloped in animated features, and even in Disney’s live-action product. There are two scenes in the new film that come off incredibly well thanks to the tact with which they are handled. The first revolves around a scene from the original film when the wardrobe takes three men assaulting the castle, dresses them up in women’s gowns, hair, and makeup and they go screaming from the castle having been emasculated by the event.

When that moment in Condon’s film arose, it wouldn’t have been unexpected for it to play out precisely as before. However, Condon turns the scene just a bit to have one of the three men come out of the affair, newly confident and proud of his outfit, sashaying back down the stairs to find his new life of liberation. That moment alone deserves recognition, but there’s another scene late in the film that deserves attention as well.

The original film never quite made the toady Lefou to be gay, but his character fawned over Gaston in a way that seemed a bit more than friendly admiration at the time. This time around, most of the film suggests that Lefou is still quite straight and sycophantically enamored with Gaston. However, after Lefou discovers just how much of a lout his traveling companion was, he comes to a realization that wasn’t effectively tackled in the original. That his appreciation for Gaston sours a bit is a nice bit of texture for the character, but what makes him the more compelling is during a dance held at the end of the film in which he is seen twirling with a young woman before having the young man from the wardrobe seen cut in to become his dancing partner. It’s a nice scene and while it would be nice to see Disney finally tackle homosexuality in a deep and meaningful way, this was a solid step forward for the company.

Oscar Prospects

Guarantees: Original Song, Production Design, Costume Design
Probables: Makeup & Hairstyling, Sound Mixing
Potentials: Cinematography, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
Unlikelies: Picture, Director, Actress (Emma Watson), Film Editing

Review Written

March 28, 2017

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