Since most of my childhood was passed in the 90's, it shouldn't surprise anyone that I've seen Disney's animated classic Beauty and the Beast numerous times. I remember seeing it in the theater way back in 1991, and then watching it again and again on a trusty old VHS. With that history in mind, I went into the new live-action adaptation with fairly neutral expectations, but with every intention of giving the movie plenty of generosity to reinvent the story.
This generosity was starting to deplete before the movie began, due to the forty-five minutes of inane previews that preceded the feature film. I understand that this is marketed to kids, and therefore they have to select the previews to appeal to that audience, but surely no one in their right minds thought that the VHS generation wouldn't be there too. Forty-five minutes teasing at all the films I definitely won't be seeing. Gru and his Fabio-like brother? No thanks. Smurfs meet the Amazonian Smurfs? Ugh, please. More Transformers, REALLY? Make it stop...make it stop...
FINALLY the movie began.
The haunting theme plays as the familiar narration begins, and the groundwork is laid for the rest of the story. A few things immediately stick out: the first is that the prince really had it coming; it wasn't just one poor choice, but a lifestyle of selfishness and arrogance. The prince is a clear imitation of Louis XIV, being as pompous and lavish as possible, funded by the taxes of the provincial people. This depiction makes the harsh enchantment much more understandable, because it clearly shows that the prince made many choices that confirmed his selfishness-- the hag and the rose were just a final straw as it were.
The second thing of note is that a few added lines of narration clear up a few questions left unanswered by the animated telling. Namely, how did no one in the province know that a grand castle was nestled in the forest, and not that far away from the village? Did no one in the castle have any association at all with people outside? How did no one know that it was there, and housing royalty? It turns out the curse erased the castle and all who worked or dwelt there from the memories of their loved ones. That makes perfect sense. Easily fixed. I still have a few questions but never mind those for the moment.
From here the movie proceeds into the predictable musical sequence "Bonjour!", introducing Belle and the townspeople. For the most part, it's all very lively and colorful, showcasing the quirky townspeople and their simple lives, and certainly depicting the tininess of the settlement -- it's almost claustrophobic really. It's the sort of place where everyone knows everything about everyone, and they don't like change, because their way of life is just fine as it is, thank you very much. The tension between Belle and the townspeople is much more prominent here than was shown in the animated version. Whereas the classic cartoon threw out passing lines about Belle not fitting in and not really having friends, this version displays a more mutually negative relationship. The townspeople don't like Belle's progressive thinking, and display paranoid animosity towards her attempts to utilize a homemade washing machine or teach a child to read. However, the townspeople are also shown snatching their laundry out of her way so she doesn't step on it as she obliviously hops through town singing about the "little people." While we can assume there's more history than is shown onscreen, it seems that Belle has given up trying to justify her ways to these simple-minded people.
Speaking of Belle, a great deal of hype was driven by Emma Watson's participation in this movie, to the point that it seemed that the film's existence was contingent on Watson's involvement. And really she does a decent enough job as Belle, but I'm not convinced that Belle is all that much different from Hermoine, Emma Watson's character in the Harry Potter movies (specifically movies, not the books), which makes it hard to critique her actual performance objectively. In my preview of this year's movies, I referenced Beauty and the Beast as Hermoine! The Musical due to the fact that Emma Watson portrays a book-loving girl who lives in a castle surrounded by magic. I'm not retracting that, and would add to it that like her Harry Potter character, Watson's Belle seems to be better at most things than just about everyone she encounters.
Watson herself proudly toted Belle as being a more feminist heroine. I suppose that Belle could be seen as an era-appropriate feminist, being a reader, an innovative inventor, and a tad fiery, but ultimately her great adventure is still marrying a prince. For it being a musical, Watson is okay; not great. I can't say this bothered me too much, because even the animated version didn't have soaring musical numbers for Belle to break loose on, so placing priority on the acting isn't the worst idea in the world for this particular role. However, what is either an error of directing or just lack of stage experience, Emma Watson is a little stiff as Belle. In her musical moments, she just seems bored and a bit dull. While the rest of the townsfolk are quirky and varying, Belle moves through them like a stone angel by comparison. It's true that not everyone can swoop around ala Julie Andrews, but a little movement and expression wouldn't hurt. Even in her most opportune moment on the hilltop where she sings of wanting adventure in the great wide somewhere, Watson runs to the top of the hill, and stands there.
While Belle's songs may not be written to display range and personality, the more iconic piece "Be Our Guest" demands personality, expression, and charisma. While I'll allow for others to disagree with me, I didn't think this number was executed with the enchanting pizazz that the song's reputation carries. Scottish actor Ewan McGregor is a talented singer, but his imitation French accent is so canned and forced that it's hard to connect to the semi-human object as he has his moment of glory. And perhaps the artists of the CGI-characters were limited by adhering to semi-realism, which in turn limited the range of expression and body-language that the objects can demonstrate. Example: In the animated cartoon, Mrs. Potts, although clearly a teapot, has a little bit of squishy bounce to her movements in the manner of a pleasantly plump housekeeper. Here, Mrs. Potts is most certainly a ceramic teapot, depending strictly on her animated expressions for liveliness, which ends up feeling a little lacking for a bombastic musical number. Lumiere has the most free range of movement, but his faux Frenchness detracts from the expected buoyancy of the moment. Ultimately the colorful and abstract "Be Our Guest" sequence left me wondering what kind of mushrooms make up the grey stuff.
To give proper credit, although some things fall flat, that is not to say that everyone involved is mediocre. One of the most unexpected successes of this film is Luke Evans as Gaston. Luke Evans not only pulls off the part of the self-possessed villain with convincing conceit and well-timed comedy, his musical numbers are executed with perfection. As a character, Gaston is one of the most lively and flamboyant characters in the entire movie, human or otherwise. And interestingly, he probably has the most amount of original lines, whereas most of the script is lifted directly from the cartoon. Gaston doesn't get deep or sympathetic by any means, but he gets more screen time, which provides some needed breaks from the sometimes plodding castle scenes.
Evans might be one of the biggest highlights, but he's not the only one. Elsewhere, Dan Stevens' performance under the CGI Beast is fairly impressive; the Beast has much more personality in this adaptation, even a sense of humor, which makes the romance aspect much more credible. Furthermore, his spotlight number "Evermore" is one of the more memorable vocal pieces, though possibly because of its originality. Kevin Kline as Maurice also works extremely well, being an absent-minded genius, but not entirely bumbling. Audra McDonald as the boisterous boudoir? Perfect. And any excuse to include Stanley Tucci is a good one.
The box office numbers reflect only soaring success, so I don't expect many to agree with my assessment that this endeavor represented many lost opportunities. Beauty and the Beast does a truly marvelous job of bringing the cartoon to life with real actors, but therein lies part of my issue: unlike Cinderella or The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast borrows so heavily from its animated inspiration that it plays out like an imitation rather than adaptation, predictably checking boxes as it goes, bogging down the pacing of the story. The few scenes that are new to this telling are the most interesting, if only because they don't have a decades-old ghost to live up to. Beauty and the Beast is by no means a bad movie, it's even pretty good, but might have been so much better had they really aimed to reinvent, rather than walk a finely scripted line.