Over the weekend, Disney released their latest live-action remake of an animated classic — Beauty and the Beast — and it made a gazillion dollars. This isn’t surprising, not in the slightest. To ensure a hit all they needed to do was stay reasonably close to the plot of that animated version and populate it with competent performances and stunning spectacle. Frankly, it’d have been harder for them to make a bad movie.
So rather than debating here the merits of a tale as old as time and beloved the world over, let’s simply focus on what’s different with this version of Beauty and the Beast. For starters, it’s live-action, and while that’s the most basic point of these remakes, it did raise some questions about how the film would pull off the most magical elements. With today’s technology, it isn’t necessarily hard to make candlesticks dance or teapots sing, but it can be argued that this sort of fantasy is still something best achieved through animation rather than computer graphics.
Where the original designs for characters like Lumiere and Cogsworth had features rendered on inanimate objects, they were still expressive characters. That gets lost with the new designs; they’re too busy, too intricate, and often any “acting” is lost in translation. On the other hand, Mrs. Potts and Plumette look rather good, benefiting from simpler composition, as do Madame de Garderobe and Maestro Cadenza, whose facial features are more loosely adapted. And this isn’t to suggest that any of the actors tasked with voicing these roles do so poorly, quite the opposite in fact (with Ewan McGregor being the standout of the bunch), but it’s more difficult to sympathize with their plight when you’re distracted by deciphering their faces.
That said, going in I was actually more worried with how well the Beast would compare against his flesh and blood co-stars, but the digital work done with his character was pretty remarkable. This is especially true of his face, which in close-ups is really expressive and life-like; the motion-captured performance from Dan Stevens comes through loud and clear, and it’s quite a good performance to boot.
For the most part, the digital wizardry does justice to the tale, even if it’s at time more complicated than necessary. The film’s overall production quality is top notch, with everything from costumes to set dressings looking absolutely stunning. Disney spared no expense when it came to recreating Belle’s provincial village or Gaston’s tavern (adorned in antlers as expected) or even the Beast’s massive, wintry castle.
When it comes to the story itself, Beauty and the Beast is mostly indistinguishable from the 1991 animated film — except for changes which do, surprisingly, add some much needed explanation. For instance, they’ve done away with the curse being tied to the prince’s 21st birthday, removing the weirdness of a young child being cursed for acting like any other spoiled, rich kid. The castle is hidden away with magic, forever trapped in winter, and the townspeople’s memories have been erased, which is why they don’t remember the castle or their liege lord. These are minor changes, yes, but they do fix a few of those issues that plagued the original animated film.
The weirdest inclusion, and the only one I found didn’t add a whole lot other than padding the runtime, was the teleportation book. Even writing that out seems weird, but it’s a strange and almost sci-fi element that comes in seemingly out of nowhere.
Characters, too, benefit more than not from the film’s tweaking. Belle is now the inventor, at one point developing her own “washing machine.” She still reads voraciously, even teaching another young girl, but it alone isn’t the reason she’s such an outcast. Neither is it because her father is some lovable weirdo, but instead a heartbroken artist who creates music boxes to sell at the fair. Overall, the film’s major characters are better realized, allowing their motivations to come across more clearly.
The cast is wonderful, and even those required to sing the movies’ most beloved songs rise to the occasion. Again, McGregor has one of the most difficult jobs with “Be Our Guest”, but he turns in a great performance. (Still, Jerry Orbach fans need not worry, his rendition will always be the best.) Emma Watson and Stevens are good, not amazing, but they sing well enough. Josh Gad also falls on the more okay than excellent side with his Le Fou (and boy was way too much made of his character sort of, kind of, maybe being gay). And, of course, veterans like Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, and Kevin Kline are each superb.
Without a doubt, though, the best showing of the film has to go to Luke Evans as Gaston. It’s as if Evans was born to play the role; full of swagger and machismo, Evans just oozes charm and even his more vile moments end up being damn funny. You never like Gaston, that isn’t the point, but Evans is a joy to watch. The man needs to do more musical comedy.
Beauty and the Beast is sure to please even the most die-hard of Disney musical fans. It may never try to do much more with its simple tale of girl meets beast than the animated classic, but the little flairs it does add do flesh out the story, fixing the few loopholes in the original. All in all, Beauty and the Beast is a big, splashy remake as only Disney can do them — which is to say yearly, because after The Jungle Book and now this film’s great success, Disney won’t ever stop.