Written by Daniel Simpson
It was easy to ignore Disney’s trend of remaking their animated classics in live-action when movies like Cinderella where barely a blip on the radar, but last year’s The Jungle Book was a sign that they were films worth making note of. That film made almost a billion dollars, won an Oscar, and received good reviews too. Personally, I didn’t love Jon Favreau’s movie, but I thought it was a pretty solid adventure film that made some smart deviations from the animated film. Just a year later, Disney has doubled down, presenting a remake of their only film to score a Best Picture nomination; Beauty and the Beast. The film has been hyped as a prime blockbuster and sure enough opened to huge business. My own interest, however, was mute. The movie didn’t seem to be doing anything new to justify a remake and as such I didn’t see much point in the film. Circumstances nonetheless found me at the theater and lo and behold my initial suspicions were on-point.
Anyone familiar with the animated film will not require a plot synopsis here, but for anyone uninitiated, I will provide. Set in a small 18th century French village, the film follows Belle (Emma Watson), a young woman who stands out amidst the women in her village due to her affinity for reading and her lack of interest in the handsome, though selfish and simplistic Gaston (Luke Evans). One day, Belle’s father (Kevin Kline) ventures off on a trip but becomes lost in the forest, eventually finding refuge in a seemingly abandoned castle. Turns out the castle is actually home of a hideous beast (Dan Stevens) who takes the father prisoner. The Beast is himself a former prince, cursed for his vanity and transformed into the terrifying creature, while his servants have been transformed into animated household objects. Belle opts to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner. The Beast initially cares nothing for her, but the servants remind him that their curse can be broken if The Beast learns to love, and comes to be loved. What follows is a slow love story which develops between the two.
With the exception of the actors, the above plot description can essentially be applied to the animated film just as easily. Indeed, this remake is remarkably similar to the beloved animated movie. Not just the storyline, but several visual elements and lines of dialogue are lifted entirely and what little is added doesn’t mean much. There are some tweaks made to Belle and The Beast’s origins and a few new songs added, but none of these things make much difference. The result is a film which is mostly well-produced, but is also a bit of a bore. There are no surprises to be found, no interesting insights into the characters, and no new interesting scene constructions. Instead, Disney and co. seem interested in just presenting a parade of things people remember from the animated film with minimal change.
To be fair, the filmmakers do a pretty decent job translating some elements I didn’t think would work in live-action. I expected the servant characters to look terrible, but the visual effects behind things like a living candle and clock actually work pretty well. The castle set is also fairly strong, if a bit too effects heavy at points, but it works, and the costumes look good too. I was less impressed with the visual effects used to bring The Beast to the screen. They aren’t bad exactly, but the Beast never feels totally there and the effects don’t hold a candle to Favreau’s The Jungle Book.
It’s a shame the filmmakers felt so bound to Disney’s previous version because there are some interesting unique things that can be done with this property, as filmmakers like Jean Cocteau have proven before. Even without going to some of the darker areas of that 1946 French adaptation of the story, there is certainly new things to do. For starters, the filmmakers could have done more to flesh out the characters, particularly given the longer runtime. Belle is often praised as one of the deeper Disney princesses, but her character is still fairly simplistic. She likes to read and she has no interest in getting married, which is certainly progressive, but there is room to strengthen that part. That doesn’t really happen, however. This version of Belle is basically the same as before, albeit a little less strong an anchor of the film. On that note, many have been quick to criticize Emma Watson’s performance. I thought she was mostly fine, but she did seem to have less spark than her animated counter-part and I didn’t feel much romance between her and The Beast. The real character that I’d like to see improved however is Gaston. Gaston is an interesting villain in the fact that he possesses the traits of most male heroes in Disney rather than that of a villain, but the character in the animated film is portrayed in the most broad and basic of ways. There’s a lot of depth to be found in a character who has been socialized into getting everything he wants and isn’t used to things not going his way. I’m not trying to defend his actions, but there are some complexities to Gaston that can be explored. This film does not take that opportunity, and instead continues to portray Gaston as a complete pig without the slightest hint of subtlety or depth. Luke Evans performance is kind of fun to watch, but this just strikes me as another opportunity the filmmakers squander.
The hardest reviews to write are not for the best or worst films, but for the ones that are the most average. Truly unremarkable, and that largely sums my feelings on 2017’s Beauty and the Beast. This isn’t a film that’s bad or unpleasant. In fact, it’s generally pretty competent on a technical level. But on a creative level, the film is woefully uninspired. What more is there to say? It’s just a boring retread of the animated movie. If you really love the 1991 version then you might find some fun in seeing it done in live-action, but there isn’t much use for this movie otherwise.