A Tale As Old As Time
After witnessing an enchantress trick and curse a selfish prince [Stevens] to live the life of a savage beast, we are introduced to a small French village and Belle [Watson], one of its more open-minded and intelligent citizens. Due to the fact that she has a passion for learning, Belle is treated as a bit of an oddity by her fellow villagers and both her and her father Maurice [Kevin Kline] live outside of daily events. The only one that seems to be set on having Belle in his life, if only because she so vehemently resists, is the brash brute Gaston [Evans], who is constantly accompanied by his faithful friend Le Fou [Gad]. With Belle’s birthday approaching, Maurice promises his daughter a rose and sets off to market. On the way he is taken off the main road and encounters the prince’s castle. Accused of being a thief, he is locked in the tower. Belle learns of this, journeys to the castle and trades her father’s freedom for that of her own. As time goes on, Belle learns of the curse on the beast and underneath his harsh exterior is someone worth getting to know.
The first thing to note is that this is a fairly loyal adaptation with the only additions included to flesh characters out a little more. Right from the get-go one of the key corrections is ageing the pre-beast prince to an older man and to extend the curse to the townsfolk to explain why the disappearance of a reigning monarch isn’t a cause for concern. Both are quite interesting as they fix a few niggling plot-holes that would have been carried over in a completely straight adaptation. There is also more to Belle’s character with the fact that she is a capable inventor, like her father, and we learn the fate of her mother. We also get a few lines about how the prince was raised badly by his father, as some sort of explanation for his behavior, but it seems unnecessary. The fact he’s a rich aristocratic Frenchman would have been more than sufficient for us to understand that this was a pretty self-centred guy. However, even with these minor tweaks, Beauty & The Beast’s close adherence to the 1991 release means certain flaws have been inherited. Back in the early nineties it was considered perfectly progressive and forward for the lead princess to be a voracious reader who won’t simply marry the first suitor who comes calling. 2017 audiences are a little more discerning and will easily be able to spot that she simply marries the second one that shows an interest; even if he displays a lot of similar qualities. And yet steps have been taken and Belle is not nearly the peasant-judging whimsical elitist that she was previously. There’s also a really nice treatment of the question of ethnicity. I can’t recall any genuinely French actors but choosing to cast several black actors as villagers in medieval (I guess) France was a nice touch if only for the fact that absolutely no attention was given to it. Nobody jumped up and down saying “Plumette and Madame Garderobe are black!” or “Did you see the man who owns the village library is a black man!?” because pointing at it wasn’t necessary and subsequently nobody (that I know of) made any qualms about it – which is fantastic. Where the film falters is all the storm-in-a-teacup controversy over Le Fou’s sexuality. Making Le Fou homosexual makes sense as a logical escalation from his undying affection for Gaston is in fact an unrequited love of sorts. Many will feel pleased by the inclusion of this representation but I think after it’s hyping as the first openly gay character, there’s very little to actually process – unless you’re a foam-at-the-mouth homophobe. Much like the original, it’s a progressive step forward but potentially we’ll look back and find this portrayal clumsy.
The casting choices are somewhat divisive. Right off the bat there were those who completely approved or condemned the decision to lead with Emma Watson. Performance-wise I’ve never seen her produce anything that’s genuinely spectacular but she is a very serviceable actor. Having said that, work needs to be done on her reaction expressions – especially in a film that requires constant reaction to computer generated elements. To my mind, her performance is split 50/50 between a very commendable interpretation and a rather wooden hammy rendition. Dan Stevens does an equally acceptable job but he’s buried under CGI that mostly works but will no doubt look godawful in ten years. Aside from the leads, we have the enchanted supports and the village supports. The village supports, in the form of Kevin Kline, Josh Gad and Luke Evans are wonderful; each brings their respective character to life perfectly. The iconic magical furnishings are also good but their cartoon counterparts are so memorable that everything is drawn into comparison. Emma Thompson is pretty good but no Angela Lansbury, Ian McKellen is stuffy as Cogsworth but doesn’t have the sniveling snootery of David Ogden Stiers and Ewan McGregor tries very hard but for most viewers, his anthropomorphic Lumiere pales next to Jerry Orbach’s energetic performance. As I always maintain with these live-action remakes, everyone involved walks on a bit of a knife edge because if they try anything too different, there will be complaints that the original is being warped and distorted but if they run through events with precision mimicry, everything is scrutinised against a performance that has entered a place of hyper-inflated familiarity.
Everything about this film screams elaborate musical; a fact Bill Condon believed about the original animated film. Supposedly, Disney wanted to take the film in a different direction but Condon insisted that it needed to be a big, bright, colourful musical with in fact more songs from the original team. Whether he was right or wrong, we’ll never know, but what he has produced here is undeniably joyous and heartwarming. The score is adventurous and pleasing and the production design is beyond astounding. Some may consider it a fault but everything from the sets to the props and even the lighting feels like they aren’t going for exact realism but reminiscent of something that could easily be reproduced at Disneyland but without feeling cheap, fake or limited. I mean, the “Be Our Guest” segment felt rather tame by comparison to the flamboyant flare of the original but that could almost be expected. But this choice of theatricality is both a boon and a burden; Bill Condon has a great sense of stage and spectacle but less so with performances and reactions, subsequently whenever music isn’t playing and we are witnessing shots that are neither driven by a song or have been ripped straight from the animation, their impact is mediocre. Which is unfortunate.
With a combination of acceptable CGI that will age badly and date very quickly, acting that works for the most part but hardly carves anything new and an incredibly impressive visual style, Beauty And The Beast gets enough right that it will do extremely well. Longevity is never paramount or even mentioned often with these releases but given the choice, I imagine parents would still introduce their children to this story with the animation over the live-action.
17th March 2017
The Scene To Look Out For:
By bringing animated events to life, certain events and developments can seem a little more severe or unsettling. As such, seeing an animated character falling over after a gunshot can be very different when shown in live action. More to the point, some simple eventualities that have been marching steadily forward since the start of a story can have more weight to them. Specifically, as the curse comes to full fruition, the enchanted household objects lose their sentience and we are treated to sorrowful goodbyes one-by-one. Obviously the standard Disney happy ending trumps any negativity but this tender maturity for animated objects was tastefully handled and added an extra element to a simple development.
Of everything involved, Evans feels like he’s having an exceptional amount of fun portraying the boorish Gaston. Embodying levels of eye-rolling bravado and wince-inducing villainy, he brings the character to life with a disturbing ease.
“And his name is G-A-S-T and I think there’s another T in there. I’ve just realized I’m illiterate and this is the first time I’ve said it out loud”
In A Few Words:
“A valiant effort which expands on the original reasonably well but fails to surpass it as the de facto Beauty And The Beast story”