OnScreen Chief Film Critic
Back in 1991, Disney hit the apex of their animation renaissance. Disney’s animated version of Beauty and the Beast was a massive hit. It was the first animated film to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and the only animated film to do so when there were only 5 nominees. In recent years, Disney has enjoyed great financial success with recent live-action adaptations of several of their animated classics. Nearly all of them have generated solid revenue for Disney, though the quality of each film has varied. Personally, The Jungle Book and Cinderella are the two best adaptations that they have done, with both arguably being better than their animated counterparts. Given the financial success of these adaptations, it was only a matter of time before Disney went forward with one for Beauty and the Beast and now it is finally here.
I suspect that there are few people who do not know the basic plot for this film, but I will set the stage nonetheless. A self-centered Prince (Dan Stevens) is turned into a Beast by an enchantress; a curse that will remain on him until he can learn to love another and earns the love of another before the petals fall off of an enchanted rose. The story shifts forward in time to show, in the nearby village, Belle (Emma Watson), a young woman who loves books but the villagers consider a funny girl, though not in a complimentary way. A lover of books, her beauty is unparalleled and catches the eye of the vain and brutish Gaston (Luke Evans), a soldier and hunter who is convinced that he must have Belle as his wife, despite her constant rebuffs. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), leaves to sell his good at a market, only to lose his way and wind up as the castle of the Beast, where he is imprisoned for stealing a rose he intended for Belle. With the help of her father’s horse, Belle finds her way to the castle and takes her father’s place as captive of the castle. He returns to the village to try to muster up help to rescue his daughter, while the initially frosty relationship between Belle and the Beast slowly begins to soften as more petals fall from the rose.
I found it significantly easier to separate the live action adaptations of Maleficent, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book from their live-action counterparts than I did Beauty and the Beast. It’s possible that the distance between the years 1991 and 2017 is not as dramatic as it is for those other three animated films, but it could also be because the 1991 film is so iconic and memorable and so much of this is faithful to it. On top of that, it’s difficult to hear the same songs and same lines of dialogue and not feel like they are merely covers or remixes of the originals.
Also, because so much of the 1991 film is musical, there is higher percentage of the script that just feels like a copy.
Having said that, it is still a treat to hear those songs and it’s a tribute to Alan Menken and Howard Ashman that they hold up so well still. I forgot how catchy “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” are and how memorable “Something There” and “Beauty and the Beast” truly are. Still, some of the musical elements of the film that work perfectly fine in animated form do not translate as well to live-action. There is something that feels off about Belle walking through town seemingly oblivious to everyone singing about how odd she is even though she’s walking right past them. It’s a little weird that the Beast, singing from “Something There”, is essentially talking about her at the dinner table like she’s not even there when she is. It doesn’t seem that Disney could have made this film without it being a musical, and yet a little something feels like it is lost in translation because of it.
They also add a few news songs, which did not add much overall to the film. There are several other additions to the film; some of them work better than others. A nice touch was tying the decay of the castle to the enchanted rose; with each new petal that falls, a part of the castle crumbles with it. On the flip side, some of the villagers have familial ties to some of the character at the castle that have been turned into animated objects, but it is never made clear why they were living in the village and not turned into objects too. Also, they attempt to color in a back-story explaining why Belle’s mother is out of the picture, resulting in a mystical trip to Paris. That back-story is a nice attempt at filling out the characters of Belle and her father Maurice, but it also feels like something added in to pad the runtime, which grows from the 84 minutes of the 1991 film to 129 minutes here.
While some of the additions to the storyline are a mixed back, the same cannot be said for the cast. Almost everyone seems to fit the roles they have been cast in. Emma Watson is a fine choice for the role of Belle, and she is more than capable when it comes to the songs. Dan Stevens , shrouded in impressive CGI for most of the film, is also a good Beast. The supporting cast of characters that are predominantly voice acting roles are quite enjoyable (and their CGI renderings are quite impressive). Emma Thompson is Mrs. Potts, Ian McKellan is Cogworth, Ewan McGregor really stands out as Lumiere. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Stanley Tucci help to round out the prominent voice acting roles. Josh Gad as LeFou is pretty spot on casting. Kevin Kline is Kevin Kline. Honestly, though, the standout for me was Luke Evans in the role of Gaston. Evans is an actor who can be a little lacking in the charisma department and maybe that’s partly because he hasn’t always chosen the best roles. Gaston, however, is a character perfectly suited to his strengths.
It was a nearly impossible task to expect this version of Beauty and the Beast to exceed the 1991 version. That’s a completely unfair expectation to place upon director Bill Condon and the people who made this film. However, it’s also nearly impossible to put the comparison of the two out of your mind. There is much here that hews so very closely to the 1991 animated film that feels familiar and a handful of things that they have added in that don’t necessarily improve upon anything that the end product is more of a mixed bag than I was hoping for. The end result, though, is a tale as old as time that still connects, just with a little less overall enchantment than the first time around.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars