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Beauty and the Beast
★★★☆☆
First run Theater cinema

Beauty and the Beast is the latest specimen of Disney’s questionable practice of remaking their beloved animated classics as modern, quasi-live-action blockbusters. 1991’s Beauty and the Beast is an especially tricky choice because the original is not as antique as the previous films that underwent this makeover—Alice In Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book—and many audiences still revere it as one of the brightest jewels in the gem-laden crown of hand-drawn Disney masterpieces. It was the first animated feature ever nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and broke new ground for the studio both in terms of animation techniques, thematic complexity, and intergenerational box-office success.

The story tells of a young farm girl named Belle living a provincial life in France during the Bourbon Restoration era. When Belle attempts to rescue her missing father, a horrific Beast imprisons her in a hidden castle. She doesn’t know that the Beast is actually a handsome prince, cursed long ago by an enchantress as penance for his vanity and selfish unkindness. His servants are also under this spell. They’ve been transformed into anthropomorphic appliances; specifically a clock, a candelabrum, a tea set, a feather duster, a wardrobe, and (new to this version) a harpsichord. Only true love can undo the hex and return them all to their human selves.

The new Beauty and the Beast adheres closely to the original film directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, and written by Linda Woolverton (who also wrote The Lion King and the live action remakes Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent). This updated version retains all of the iconic songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the team behind Little Shop of Horrors who instigated Disney’s musical animation rebirth and renaissance with The Little Mermaid in 1989. Menken contributes some new tunes for this version in collaboration with Tim Rice, who took over as Disney’s resident lyricist when Ashman died prematurely in the early ‘90s.  The new screenplay by Stephen Chbosky (novelist, screenwriter, and director of The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (Brett Ratner’s Hercules) uses all the characters, scenes, and production numbers from the animated film and throws in a whole bunch more. Not all these supplements enhance—in fact, much of the added backstory plays like unnecessary filler. But the new version, which is a full forty-five minutes longer than the original, manages to create a more expansive and less rushed narrative structure by mining more from the French fairy-tale source. 

Unfortunately, director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, Mr. Holmes) has little mastery of this kind of grand spectacle picture. He uses long sweeping shots that are jarringly chopped up with edits, jumping back and forth from wide shots to close-ups with little sense of rhythm or geography. [I was very glad I opted to see this in a normal theater, as 3D IMAX would no doubt have been even more disorienting.]  Just as in his 2006 movie adaptation of the Broadway show Dreamgirls, Condon also demonstrates no flair for musical sequences. Take, for example, the unimaginative way he stages and shoots the “Gaston” number. This rollicking ode to the villainous narcissistic huntsman who covets Belle is one of the funniest, most memorable sequences in the animated film. But here in live-action it plays as a hodgepodge of excessive movie musical clichés that overshadow the playful lyrics rather than providing a showcase for them.  Though lead by Josh Gad, the Broadway star of The Book of Mormon who voiced Olaf the Snowman in Frozen, this musical set piece lacks personality, humor, and invention. And while the picture appears to trumpet its distinction as part of the grand, old-fashioned musical tradition, all the songs feel oddly abbreviated and delivered in a rushed, halting style. Most of the new tunes—which often are just crooned interludes with no bridge and sometimes not even a chorus—stand out like ugly stepsisters when placed next to the iconic originals by Menken and Ashman.

Part of the problem with the film's musical aspects may come from the casting of so many major movie stars in key supporting roles. It seems an odd choice to go with marque value celebrities rather than great singers, since they mainly voice GCI characters for the great majority of the picture. When the actors do finally come to life at the end, they’re heavily made-up and awkwardly choreographed that they come across as high-priced ornaments even more than when in the guise of the Beast's home furnishings.  Ewan McGregor cannot hold a candle to Jerry Orbach in the role of Lumière, the manservant converted into a charismatic candelabrum. And Emma Thompson seems bland and weak in comparison to Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts, the cook turned into a teapot. Thus the film’s two signature songs “Be Our Guest,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” don’t land with the mesmerizing power they achieve in the animated classic.  

Aside from Gad, the only bona fide singers in this cast are Kevin Kline as Belle's father, Luke Evans as Gaston, and Audra McDonald as Madame de Garderobe—an Italian opera diva transfigured into a wardrobe. Kline only gets one of the new abridged mini-songs, Evans just contributes a few sung lines here and there, and McDonald always seems on the verge of breaking into a full-blown showstopper only to have the camera pan away from her to go find something else.  As the Beast, Dan Stevens (Summer in February, The Guest, and the BBC drama Downton Abbey) fares better. While his motion-capture performance fails to physically engender any credible menace or melancholy in the Beast, his vocal performance injects plenty of humor. He also manages to impart the same surprising level of emotional variation Robby Benson achieved in the animated version. 

What this picture does have over the original is the lead performance by Emma Watson (the Harry Potter series, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Bling Ring). While she lacks the vocal chops of Paige O'Hara (not a minor deficiency), Watson imbues Belle with far more layers than are found in her animated counterpart. She pulls off the difficult requirement that this character be a plain, bookish, ordinary farm girl and the most beautiful and intriguing woman in the village.  More importantly, Watson grounds the metaphorical fantasy elements of the source material with an emotional reality. Her unshakable and deeply human performance navigates the core dichotomy of making a modern-day American story of female empowerment out of a dark, 18th century French fairy tale written at a time when teenage girls were forced into arranged marriages.

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#BeautyAndTheBeast (’17) ★★★ can’t hold a candle to the original Disney version but doesn’t tarnish memories of it

Directed by Bill Condon
Produced by David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman

Screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos
Based on the film directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
screenplay by Linda Woolverton
based on the fairy tale "La Belle et la Bête Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont

With: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nathan Mack, Gerard Horan, Sophie Reid, Rafaëlle Cohen, Carla Nella, Haydn Gwynne, and Ray Fearon

Cinematography: Tobias A. Schliessler
Editing: Virginia Katz
Music: Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, and Tim Rice

Runtime: 129 min
Release Date: 17 March 2017
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color