There is no real reason why a 2017 live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast should exist.
The 1991 animated film is considered a masterpiece by many, the first of its kind to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The characters are iconic, the songs legendary, the artwork exquisite. Even those who find the plot troubling and outdated would be hard-pressed to find that landmark ballroom scene to be anything less than spell-binding. In other words, why watch a remake when you can just watch the cartoon? Disney, equal parts studio and relentless marketing behemoth, has banked on moviegoers ignoring the cynicism to get swept in the nostalgia of their tale as old as time.
Beauty and the Beast tells the story of Belle, a young woman living in a small town in 18th century France who longs for more than her provincial life. That life is upended when her father is captured by an arrogant prince transformed into a ferocious, hulking beast by a witch. Belle trades places with her father, living in the Beast’s castle with his magical household objects, who hope that the curse that also transformed them will break if the two fall in love. While certainly not love at first sight, the two eventually warm up to each other, seeing past their exteriors to the real people inside. Their inevitable romance faces a hurdle in the form of the townsfolk, particularly the outrageously vain, hyper-masculine Gaston, who is desperate to claim her for himself and willing to commit several cruel acts in his pursuit.
Twenty six years hasn’t changed much for the fairytale. Breaking with the tradition of previous remakes like Maleficent and Cinderella, director Bill Condon leaves much of the foundation untouched, choosing to replicate many of the original’s iconic moments and taking very few liberties along the way. It’s a shame, because the film truly shines through the slight updates. Expanded characterization and backstories provide welcome context to the central love story. Belle now loves inventing as well as books, and her intuition makes her more proactive. The Beast benefits even more, with a haughty, yet self-effacing nature that brings surprising levity to his interactions with his captive-turned-guest. He is also given a begrudging love of literature, giving him and Belle a meaningful common interest. The scenes exploring their blossoming connection are magical in a different way than the animated version, because they feel real, as does the “Gaston” sequence, arguably the most lively and fun of the film.
It’s no incident that those scenes require less digital work than the painstaking recreations of the original’s most iconic moments, like the beloved ballroom dance and the “Be Our Guest” sequence. As delightful as they are, the limits of CGI keep them from dazzling in the same way as they did in traditional ink. The household objects like Lumiére and Mrs. Potts similarly suffer: they are impressively designed, but lack the charming humanity of their animated counterparts. It’s doubtful that it could be helped, but one must wonder if there was another way to bring these scenes and characters to life, even if it meant a less faithful adaptation.
What isn’t lost in CGI translation is the performances of its all-star cast, led by Emma Watson and Dan Stevens as the title characters. As expected, Watson is great, imbuing Belle with confidence, intelligence, and sensitivity that will make her a hero to a new generation of children. Stevens as the Beast is a warm surprise, deftly navigating the special effects to deliver a vividly expressive performance that is charming, heartbreaking, and even funny. The two have great chemistry together, which is more impressive when you consider that most of their time on screen is digitally enhanced. The supporting cast is equally strong, Luke Evans particularly standing out with his hammy but enjoyable take on Gaston. Much has been made of the cast’s lack of singing prowess, especially Watson, but I found their vocals fairly decent, if not as strong as the work of Paige O’Hara and Angela Lansbury. Another change from the original is the addition of three new songs. “How Does A Moment Last Forever” works much better as a Celine Dion vehicle than a number for Belle’s father, and “Days in the Sun” is largely forgettable, but “Evermore”, the Beast’s only solo, is very effective and a likely shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.
Beauty and the Beast’s desire to revere its source so strongly is a double-edged sword. For those who grew up in the midst of the Disney Renaissance, there will always be nagging feeling that it just doesn’t live up to the original’s majesty, either because its too faithful, or not faithful enough. Bill Condon probably would’ve saved himself some trouble if he had approached the story differently. That said, Beauty is an enjoyable film that tugs at all the right heartstrings and, at times, hints at that classic Disney magic that helped make its existence possible.