Somewhere in a parallel universe, Disney produced a live-action “Beauty and the Beast” directed by Guillermo del Toro. No singing; just dark beauty, true to the source. Somewhere in time and space, that film is unspooling in a theater even as I write this, and a new generation of children – girls and boys alike – are discovering this story for the first time. Meanwhile, their parents, raised on The House of Mouse, are marveling at the rewards found in risk and artistic expression.
We don’t live in that universe. All we get is a remake of a cartoon that didn’t need remaking.
It becomes immediately apparent during the show-opening musical montage (“Belle”) that this live-action retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” is substantially less life-like than its animated predecessor. The musical montage that’s unwisely built around Emma Watson’s auto-tuned vocals looks like a car commercial: the same lighting, the same slick camera moves, but with actors who can’t muster the charm and dynamism of a Ford Focus. It’s like the world’s most expensive high school production, or a reenactment starring amusement park employees.
While one can appreciate the urge to translate a beloved cartoon classic into live action, it’s one of those urges best resisted, like McDonalds, or cocaine. “Beauty and the Beast” commits the unforgivable sin of existing. It brings absolutely nothing new to the table save for a few new songs and a drippy subplot involving Belle (Watson) discovering the truth behind her mother’s death. Beyond that, it’s a remake so faithful that its fidelity renders it boring, and its failure to engage causes creepy subtext to rise to the surface.
After all, what is “Beauty and the Beast” if not a romantic take on Stockholm syndrome, anyway? The vicious (and unnamed) Beast (Dan Stevens) locks Belle away and, with the help of The Help (Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson), begins a courtship that involves keeping her prisoner while still doling out “favors” to appear benevolent. You want books? Here you go, little lady! Want to see your elderly father? Here’s a magic mirror! All this while throwing temper tantrums and stomping around the castle like a violent Teddy Ruxpin. Hobbled women are sighing and clutching their bosoms the world over.
While never the most politically correct love story ever told, “Beauty and the Beast” takes on a very uncomfortable quality in live action. We can sympathize with our heroine when she’s afraid of her jailer; we can understand when he pisses her off; but once she’s making Sex Eyes at a character who looks like the family dog, the whole thing starts feeling weird and gross.
The cast is fair but, like the production designers, they’re handcuffed to the 1991 film. Watson comes off like a resting-smirk-face teenager who time-travelled to that magical part of France where everyone speaks with British accents; she walks around like there’s a coat hanger in the back of her dress and puts on a fair show despite being the one non-vocalist onscreen. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Luke Evans, whose Gaston gives reason to reconsider an actor mostly pigeonholed to dour, mopey film roles. He’s charming, he’s likable, and when his pipes open, they roar.
Then of course there’s Josh Gad, around whom so much controversy has been spun. For all the outrage his homosexual take on LeFou is generating, his dinner theater schtick is the real offense; Josh Gad is as subtle as a kidney stone. And while the LOOK, HE’S GAY! moments are perhaps about ten too many, and seem to exist simply to draw attention to themselves rather than to say anything new or meaningful about the character, Gad commits to this reinterpretation; however, his inability to pick an accent and stay with it would suggest a tendency for LeFou to swing both ways.
Competent though they all might be, it’s baffling to think that no one considered Anna Kendrick, Dwayne Johnson, and Patton Oswalt in these roles, as each feels an obvious and far more appropriate alternative for a one-to-one remake of the animated film. Watson in particular is poorly suited for this sort of film, and seems destined for a Rupert Grint career rather than a Daniel Radcliffe-style reinvention.
No one can deny that “Beauty and the Beast” is an efficient and well-made film. Director Bill Condon vacillates between art (“Gods and Monsters,” “Dreamgirls”) and garbage (“The Twilight Saga”), but the quality of both his art and garbage always have a tendency to be high. The prevailing problem with “Beauty and the Beast” is how unnecessary it is, and how limiting to all participants both in front of and behind the camera. Rather than a new take on a tale that’s, yes, as old as time, Disney has simply pulled a reverse “Roger Rabbit” and dropped actors into the same fake environments, created this time with green screens and computers rather than drawn by hand. There’s no opportunity to explore or try anything new lest it raise the ire of devotees, as exemplified by the media furor over Josh Gad dropping a few winks and staring lustily at Gaston.
“Beauty and the Beast” is cinematic karaoke of the worst sort, and its inevitable success opens the door for the upcoming “Lion King” remake, as well as all the rest to follow. In many ways, it’s worse than simply copying an existing film – it’s in many ways closer to theft in its stunningly limited imagination.
Directed by Bill Condon
Written by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Stephen Chbosky
Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images