The 1991 animated version of Beauty and the Beast was a landmark achievement. It was a major contributing factor to the early ‘90s revival of Disney animation and was the first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. The movie became a pop culture phenomenon, inspiring a number of spoofs and homages over the years, most famously “See My Vest” from The Simpsons. Now Beauty and the Beast joins the long line of animated classics that Walt Disney Studios is bringing to the big screen in live action versions. Directed by Bill Condon, this latest incarnation of Beauty and the Beast is a stunning piece of visual beauty to behold but doesn’t do anything new with the story that wasn’t done infinitely better a quarter century ago.
Everyone know the story: In a quaint French village, Belle (Emma Watson) lives with her artist father Maurice (Kevin Kline), though the young woman yearns for something more outside of the small town. Belle is constantly pursued by Gaston (Luke Evans), a macho warrior with his friend and companion LeFou (Josh Gad) always by his side. When Maurice doesn’t return from a trip, Belle goes in search of him and discovers a decaying mansion which has had a curse placed upon it years ago. The resident of the rotting castle is the Beast (Dan Stevens), formerly a prince until his selfishness led to an enchantress placing a curse upon him, his household, and all of his servants. In order to lift the curse, the Beast must be capable of giving and receiving love before the final petal of a magical rose falls from the stem.
Of course, Belle and Beast’s romance is aided by the various furnishing breathing with life. There’s the candelabra Lumière (Ewan McGregor), the clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), the kettle Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and her son, a teacup, Chip (Nathan Mack), the wardrobe Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), and the piano Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci). These beloved characters bring the hit songs to this version as they did with 1991 classic, belting out “Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Familiarity is at once the chief selling point for Beauty and the Beast and a major reason that its story doesn’t have remotely the same impact that it did the last time around. The screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos doesn’t breathe new life into the story as much as it simply aims to revive the magic of the past. With nothing new to do with the story, one wonders what the purpose of this live action remake is aside from helping the bottom line and pleasing the stockholders.
While the story of this version of Beauty and the Beast doesn’t quite tug on the heartstrings with the same efficiency of the animated classic, it is certainly something to look at. Bill Condon has assembled a team of artisans that craft a gorgeous world with lush costume, set, and production design that is vibrant with its colors. Condon has fun with the IMAX 3D, hurling items at the screen and creating moments of whirlwind visual splendor. Even the live action sequences with modest CGI flair are dazzling, as Gaston sings his own praises in the local tavern in a segment that is straight out of a classic musical. However, most of the moments of visceral grandeur come at the expense of the story’s pacing. Even when the story is meandering or just plain overly familiar, there’s always something on the screen to catch your eye.
As the Beast, Dan Stevens is obscured by the motion capture and voice modulation that is necessary for his character. The motion capture technology on display here seems like a step backwards from the photorealism of last year’s The Jungle Book. It’s still a technological marvel, nonetheless, but not an awe-inspiring digital creation. Emma Watson seems as if she was born into the role of Belle, approaching the role with a quiet grace. The real standout performance of Beauty and the Beast goes to Luke Evans as Gaston. Recently, the British actor has been reveling in playing villainous creations and he delivers most of the film’s funniest moments and the biggest, brashest persona of them all. As for the much ballyhooed sexuality of LeFou, it’s another case of the publicity taking precedent over the content. There’s nothing controversial about this character as presented. Among the servants in the castle, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen work off each other wonderfully as Lumière and Cogsworth, with McGregor surprisingly inflecting a scene-stealing French accent.
Fans of the animated classic will love reliving the beloved tale in its gorgeous live action version. Likewise, children unfamiliar with the 1991 version will be raptured by the colors and songs of Beauty and the Beast. If you’re looking for something that is even the slightest bit different from the animated version, you’ll be underwhelmed by the familiarity of the film’s construction while dazzled by the stunning visual beauty. Beauty and the Beast isn’t a bad retelling of an animated classic; it’s just a movie that doesn’t have a purpose aside from the bottom line when it could’ve been so much more.