In every sense of the word, Disney’s 1991 animated classic, Beauty and the Beast, is magical. It features one of the earliest strong female Disney characters. The ballroom dance scene is gorgeous, setting the bar high for visual style and romantic appeal as well as being one of the first fully computer-animated sequences in a major movie. The plot unfolds through economical storytelling and brilliant songs that are among catchiest in a Disney catalog packed with hits. The anthropomorphic clock, candelabra, and other household items are literally magical, whimsical supporting characters. And it was the first animated movie nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
But many aspects haven’t aged well. The animation looks dated. Seen through the filter of current social norms and attitudes, Gaston’s aggressive advances are more cringe-worthy than charming, as is watching strong, independent Belle reject an abusive alpha male only to fall for an abusive, distant one.
Disney gambled that fans were eager for an updated live-action version of Beauty, full of the music, pageantry, and romance that made the original a beloved classic. What we get is cotton candy, fluffy and beautiful but not very filling. It’s fun and entertaining, overstuffed and unrestrained, but treads little new ground or adds anything essential.
If you’re a movie critic or critical of movies that scream “calculated fan-service” or “cash grab,” this might be a deal-breaker. If you’re already a fan, it likely won’t matter at all; Beauty and the Beast will delight and charm.
Just like you remember
The 2017 movie is truly a remake of the 1991 version, often scene for scene, song for song, and even joke for joke. The titanic production numbers are all there. “Belle” is an explosion of singing villagers in a perfectly French village. “Be Our Guest” is an eye-searing 3D kaleidoscope of color, shape, and food that puts the gleefully over-the-top original to shame. The ballroom scene, set to the sedate “Beauty and the Beast,” is charming. My personal favorite, “Gaston,” is a faithful rendition of the delightful wordplay and chest-thumping arrogance that made the song a classic.
The production design is lavish, a baroque theme park ride that draws liberally from similar blockbusters. The village could be Hogsmeade; Beast’s castle could be Hogwarts, if M.C. Esher was lead architect. Scenes have the same moonlit View-Master 3D look as The Hobbit. It’s all gorgeous, but you’ve seen it before. It’s a relentless CGI-fest.
The costumes are sumptuous and ornate, though Belle’s classic gold ball gown looks like an off-the-rack (if rather expensive) prom dress.
Mostly inspired casting, except…
Kevin Kline (Bob’s Burgers) is delightful as Belle’s contemplative, caring father Maurice. Josh Gad’s (Frozen) LaFou is less slapstick than the typical bumbling sidekick. He’s Olaf with more more depth, more yearning, and a character arc. No one has more fun than Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games), as the prickly, scenery-chewing musician-cum-harpsichord, Maestro Cadenza.
It’s wonderful to see so many people of color in strong roles. Audra McDonald (The Sound of Music Live) is superb as the unhinged diva soprano, Madame Garderobe, as is Gugu Mbantha-Raw (Jupiter Ascending) as the flirty Plumette.
For a movie set in France, the actors are primarily British, with strong English accents. Ian McKellan (The Hobbit) lends his mellifluous voice to puffed-up majordomo Cogsworth. The quintessentially British Emma Thompson (Brave) plays the quintessentially British Mrs Potts, with an exaggerated Yorkshire accent. The exception is Lumiere’s cliched faux-French accent, voiced by the very Scottish Ewan McGregor (Star Wars I-III).
The creme de la creme, however, is village tough guy Gaston, played by the perfectly cast, perfectly awful Luke Evans (The Hobbit). His jawline could be quarried from granite, and his arrogant swagger…c’est parfait! C’est magnifique!
The leads, however, are more problematic. Emma Watson (Harry Potter) is the fearless, independent Belle, yearning for more than her provincial life. While Belle routinely rebuffs Gaston’s smug advances, she falls for Beast right on cue, imprisonment and monstrous rage notwithstanding. Watson is charming and earnest, but often somewhat wooden, hands glued to her sides and showing little expression. Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens is unrecognizable as the Beast, done entirely in CGI. He’s rendered well and largely avoids the uncanny valley, but he looks artificial and unnatural, full of jerky motion and too-perfect fur. Given the wonders created by today’s makeup and SFX artists, it’s hard to fathom why Stevens didn’t perform in a costume and prosthetics. In human form, he’s bland. He isn’t sneering enough as the entitled, indolent French prince of the opening, and he’s too earnest as the wide-eyed naif of the end. Watson and Stevens have little chemistry, and their kiss after his restoration is pure chaste Disney affection.
Did this tale as old as time need to be remade? Not really. The question is, will that matter? Nope. Disney didn’t make this for salty movie reviewers; they made it for the legions of fans eager to see Belle and Beast brought to life. They made it to earn a bajillion dollars. And they made it to inspire countless new Disney princesses.
If you plan to see it, I recommend 2D. The 3D is distracting, hard to focus in spots and kills background detail. Also, no post-credits scene.
Beauty and the Beast (Walt Disney Pictures / Mandeville Films; PG): B-