2017 | rated PG | starring Emma Watson | directed by Bill Condon | 2hrs 9mins |
Studio Pitch: Live-action Disney musical remakes won’t stop making money
The latest in the line of Disney rifling through their back catalogue of animated films for what to remake into live-action because – for reasons absolutely foreign to me – people don’t stop flocking to them, Beauty and the Beast comes in on a particularly large wave of hype. The original property is loved. As the first animated movie to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, Disney’s original film is considered a high-water mark of animated sophistication. Beautiful, heart-felt and tuneful.
The studio seems acutely aware of this as much as they are arrogant in their ability to knock it out of the park, taking extra care with the mechanics of the film. The cast is spot on, from Watson as the bookish Belle who eschews her village’s ideals of womanhood and seeks adventure to Luke Evans’ dead-perfect Gaston shifting from pompous oaf to ego-bruised villain to Dan “I’m in everything this year” Stevens supplying the blue eyes and motion capture of the beast. The production design is also pretty incredible. The village given a slightly cartoonish slant, the Beast’s castle full of majestic details. If you’re interested in set and production design, this movie is a must-see from that standpoint. It’s gorgeous.
But my take on this Beast is the same as most of the other live-action remakes kicked off by…Alice in Wonderland? Malificent? Cinderella? Anyway, they have no reason to exist. Disney is giving the public what they want and with rare exception (like Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book or Pete’s Dragon) the movies are shot-for-shot recreations without using the opportunity provided by live action to add something extra to the material. What Disney doesn’t realize with this particular movie is that the animated Beauty and the Beast is so well regarded exactly because it was an animated film that transcended what people thought were the limitations of character and emotion that animation could convey. A live-action Beast doesn’t play like that. It’s just another live action movie with a lot of cartoonish CGI.
The movie also doesn’t sound nearly as good as it looks. It leans more toward opera than musical where the characters sing a lot of their emotions, but nothing is turned into a catchy toe-tapping musical number. Frozen was so good at staging the musical numbers more like a Broadway show, which I think is what director Bill Condon is trying to do here, but each one falls flat. Condon saves all the musical number energy up to go all out for “Be Our Guest”, again funneling the resources into what audiences are familiar with. It’s a garish and embarrassing sequence that mistakes bigger for better. Trying to have it’s live-action cake and eat the otherworldly magic of animation too. The original songs, snuck in to qualify for an Original Song Oscar nomination, barely register.
I always forget that this movie climaxes around a big battle between the town villagers and a bunch of cursed inanimate objects in the castle. Disney has lined up the stars to voice Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), candlestick Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson). These creations don’t look as jarringly weird as I’d expected in live action, until we get to the nightmarish-looking wardrobe that looms over Belle, flaps it’s curtains like a mouth and spits out clothes. It’s monstrous! When the film hits it’s climactic classic Disney “Fight in a High Place”, leaping from steeple to steeple, it’s all shot in the dark and looks grainy and ugly.
Beauty and the Beast is also Disney’s big entry to the Hollywood Women’s Empowerment Narrative of 2017 and in this case it is befitting of the character Belle. I can already see the Buzzfeed list of “Top 18 Reasons Emma Watson is the Feminist Disney Princess We Need Right Now”. Finally, I can’t part from Beast 2017 without getting into my favorite completely tangential thing about it, and that is how Bill Condon coined the phrase “exclusively gay moment” while running around the world in interviews patting himself on the back for how progressive the movie is. It sparked a ban in China and a bunch of people leaping to support the film for something that you will miss if you blink. LeFou is gay and Josh Gadd – never a master of character – plays him dialed up to a 10 in pure stereotype mode. Even more interesting, when the movie made LeFou gay, they also had to change his role in the story from being Gaston’s sidekick to breaking from him when he goes full villain; because he can’t be gay and a bad guy. That would be too much complexity.
Maybe I’ve gotten too cynical toward how this particular sausage is made or too defensive about animated movies being remade. Given how protective Disney is of this particular property and how much creativity goes into the production design and technical aspects it’s kind of amazing how soulless and mechanically assembled Beauty and the Beast feels. It feels more like work than entertainment.