Beauty and the Beast

A girl and her buffalo: a love story

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A rococo confection featuring fiendishly intricate production values, a bravura, coloratura-rich musical score and whiz-pop state-of-the-art effects, Disney’s latest iteration of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast is more than just eye candy. It’s a Michelin-triple-starred master class in patisserie skills that transforms the cinematic equivalent of a sugar rush into a kind of crystal-meth-like narcotic high that lasts about two hours. Only once viewers have come down and digested it all might they feel like the whole experience was actually a little bland, lacking in depth and so effervescent as to be almost instantly forgettable.

Paradoxically, despite all the palpable budget spend on fancy computer effects, it’s the cheaper, old-school, real-world bits—like the big ensemble dance sequences or the moments when the actors interact directly with each other rather than with greenscreen illusions—that pack the biggest wallops.

Nevertheless, this live-action-meets-CGI musical directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) should hit the sweet spot with audiences.

Indeed, all credit should be due to Disney for canny planning on a meta level, one of the trademarks of its success over the years. This remake of the company’s 1991 animated hit tracks closely to the earlier version’s plot and story beats, includes revamps of all the old songs and arrives just in time to exploit generational nostalgia—to lure viewers who loved the last version as kids and are just becoming parents themselves. Since the 1960s, Disney has been re-releasing in roughly 25-year intervals their classic animated features, either theatrically or on home-entertainment platforms. Now that all the old films are out there in the public domain, live-action remakes are the best way to keep the story brands alive, starting with Maleficent in 2014, Cinderella in 2015 and now this.

In terms of how it approaches storytelling, this exercise is less about revisionism and “villain” rehabilitation, a la Maleficent, than it is about refining the core story (originally written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740) for a modern audience. Arguably, it owes as much to director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz’s take on the girl with the glass slippers as it does to the 1991 cartoon Beast. Not content to gild the lily with a couple more songs and some bling, Condon and his fellow filmmakers decorate their flower with all kinds of extras, Easter eggs and borderline excessive adornment, especially when it comes to adding in backstories.

For starters, where the 1991 version began with a stained-glass-window-style tableau, simple and to the point, to tell the origin story of the Beast, here we get a whole pre-title sequence, with scores of background artists and white ball gowns galore to introduce the proud prince (Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey, more seen than heard throughout). Within minutes, he’s cursed by a passing enchantress who (in a smart nod to Villeneuve’s and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1756 version of the story) comes back into the plot later on. Likewise, just as the 2015 take on Cinderella went into the heroine’s relationship with her mean but also misunderstood stepmother, here the running time is considerably increased by a subplot exploring how the relationship between Belle (Emma Watson) and her father (Kevin Kline) is strained by the fact that he’s never explained why her mother isn’t around.

Elsewhere, various supporting characters are fleshed out and filled in. The most felicitous example is what’s been done with LeFou (Josh Gad), the buddy of the story’s main villain, Gaston (Luke Evans). Where in the 1991 take on the material he was just a portly goofball sidekick, here he gets to be the most obviously gay character to appear in a Disney film, a man hopelessly in unrequited love with his straight best friend. (“He doesn’t deserve you,” someone tells him at one point, a big old wink to the older members of the audience.) Rabid red-state homophobes may be incandescent with fury to see how things end up for him in the finale.

Purists and prudes may bridle at the tinkering with basic elements here, which is sort of absurd, given that fairy tales are always changed and adapted by each new telling, but mostly these additions supply welcome warmth and humanity. The film’s weakest link is the look of the digital characters. While the effects deployed to render the Beast and his various enchanted servants—Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Condon regular Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson)—are marvels in terms of texture, especially as their digital fur, brass or ceramic surfaces react to the environment around them, the faces are too often stiff and lacking in expression.

For example, amusing though McGregor’s French accent may be—and never before has candelabra capered so daintily onscreen, especially during the rousing, Busby Berkeley-inspired rendition of “Be Our Guest”—this version has nothing on the winking wryness of the 2D-drawn figure in the 1991 version, with his strong jaw and subtle angularities. Although he gradually pulls himself out of the Uncanny Valley as the film goes on, the Beast is even more of a disappointment, far too stiff and imperious in the early reels. The animation here is less convincing than the actor Jean Marais was under a ton of fake fur and theatrical makeup in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of the story, which is clearly a key influence here in terms of character and production design.

Maybe it’s just the presence of Watson (who’s OK, but not great), but there may be an intentional touch of Hogwarts, too, in the impossible, M.C. Escher-like staircases that also evoke the gloom of Frankenstein’s laboratory—a realm that played such a key part in Condon’s breakthrough work, Gods and Monsters, another story about a gay man (McKellen) in love with a straight guy and lovable “freaks.”

Condon also brings his experience to the table for the big musical numbers, which are among the best bits of the film, especially “Gaston,” the LeFou-led tribute to our boastful villain (containing the immortal line “I use antlers in all of my decorating”) that adds punch to the first part of the film. Filmed refreshingly straight, in a series of wide, stable shots that eschew the fidgety editing of most pop videos in favor of an old-fashioned, MGM-style proscenium space, it’s a delicious moment, traditional in all the right ways. That said, it’s hard not to wonder how much of the singing throughout really is entirely the work of the actors credited in the final roll and how much was refined by Auto-Tune-style software. It’s easier to believe in talking teacups than in the notion that this really is Dan Stevens’ singing voice.

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