Beauty and the Beast struggles with technical limitations but still stirs its audience with spellbinding visuals and delightful tunes.
Beauty and the Beast follows the similar storyline as the 1991 animated classic, which was written by Linda Woolverton as an adaptation from the fairy tale “La Belle et la Bete” by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. In the late 1700s France, a selfish prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed by an enchantress in disguise (Rita Davies) after he refuses to let her stay the night at his castle. Due to this arrogance, she turns him into a hideous beast, and his household servants into animated objects before casting a spell to put them all into oblivion.
Many years later, in the village of Villeneuve, Belle (Emma Watson), a bookish girl who wishes for more than a “provincial life”, feels like an outcast while facing the proposal from a brute named Gaston (Luke Evans). One day, her father Maurice (Kevin Kline), an eccentric clockmaker, gets lost on his way, stumbles to the Beast’s castle and is then imprisoned. Belle arrives only to take his place as the Beast’s captive, but in time, she learns to appreciate the inner beauty of the Beast and vice versa.
Disney remakes may be deemed unnecessary, only pulled off for profit by the Mouse House, but amongst a handful of recent installments, there were still some above enjoyable (*Cinderella *and Pete’s Dragon). Beauty and the Beast, one of the greatest Disney classics, would also be modernized, and the new movie was out in March against light competition. In retrospect, the 1991 musical had a strong female lead, a perfectly balanced love interest, and a charismatic villain, and was told seamlessly in harmony with its lively animation style and memorable songs. Therefore, the new movie had a lot to live up to, considering how the original was the first animated movie to get nominated for Oscar’s Best Picture, which marked the rise of Disney’s reign ever since.
That being said, writers Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) didn’t miss the chance to add some changes. Even though the original was superb in most aspects, there was still room for improvement as diehard fans have been pointing out bugging ambiguities here and there. The medium of live-action also offers more opportunities to extend certain moments to culminate aesthetic and storytelling potential that the 84-minute window didn’t allow, so director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls) definitely made use of the extra 45 minutes. Condon felt that he had the chance to present a more mature and coherent plot – to “fill in the blanks” as he answered The Hollywood Reporter – which braced three new songs.
Amongst them, the most valuable addition is “Evermore” sung by Dan Stevens. Beast never got the chance to have his own moment for a song, but now Disney veteran Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice has upgraded Beast’s painful roar (after he releases Belle from the castle), effectively highlighting his turn of self-realization when he embraces humanity by sacrificing his well-being for Belle. The other two new songs are enchanting and nicely sung enough to not feel redundant at all: “Days in the Sun” gives us a closer look into the life of Beast’s servants, and “How Does a Moment Last Forever?” underscores Belle and Maurice’s feelings about her deceased mother. They all tighten the plot in spots that need more re-invention and emphasis on characters.
While Menken firmly maintains the jolly vibe of old musical numbers, they were also brought back with proper updates to match the new spectacle. Condon made significant adjustments in setting stages and organizing choreography to enhance the sense of realism. Still, some scenes appear overly packed with characters dancing in confined locales, for example, “Belle” in the square or “Gaston” in the town pub. Other than that, set pieces are visually arresting with rich colorization that matches their thematic expression, like the use of yellow, brown, and blue in Villeneuve; similarly, Beast’s castle has dark tones with stretches of shadow, dimly-lit chandeliers, and classy furniture. The castle residents in their human forms look more like French aristocrats in the late 18th century than in the originals, with silly but historically accurate makeup and powdered wigs.
In addition to the songs, Beauty and the Beast adds more depth and clarity to its characters by giving them backstories, each of which either provides insight into their personalities or ties up some loose ends (while creating few more). The well-read Belle is now more assertive against the commentaries from her townsfolk and Gaston’s misogynist gaze, and Watson’s book-smart aura provides a sense of self-assurance and determination for her character. Besides, Belle’s background is clearer with a subplot about her late mother, giving both her and Maurice the melancholy of losing a loved one and bringing her closer to Beast in a magical moment of truth, even though the scene drags quite a bit. There is too a significant change for her love interest, the Beast (by a sometimes pouty-lipped Stevens), as Condon clears all the fog surrounding the prince’s recent past: he was already a grown man when the curse struck down. He grows to be grumpy, hot-tempered, and lacking social skills not just because of his long time under the spell but also negative influences when he was young. In fact, his intellect is now quite a force to be reckoned with, and Belle and Beast’s common interest deepens their mutual affection. These additions furnish both of them as layered individuals and a couple.
Nobody in current Hollywood could “take cheap shots like Gaston” as Luke Evans does – he was perfectly cast, highly likely because of his zany performance in High-Rise. Still an egomaniac considering himself a specimen, Gaston is also a former soldier who misses the glory of battlefields while deviously trying every way possible to win Belle as his trophy wife. Evans boosted Gaston’s cockiness with tactful charisma when rallying the villagers to hunt down the Beast. Along with Gaston is his subordinate LeFou (Josh Gad), who gathered quite some attention as his sexual orientation was revealed. Not just a foolish admirer anymore, he now has a likable character arc of his own. Belle’s father, with Kline’s tenderness, is a clockmaker instead of a goofy inventor, embodying the theme of time’s cold-hearted flow through his creations.
Moving from animation to live-action is hard; it requires skills and care in the transformation between two different art forms where CGI could not make up for everything. Condon and his team of art directors did their best with the inevitable constraint on the live-action genre. As a result, the anthropomorphic household utensils must have photo-realistic texture and movement. The tweak in the servants’ story (gradual metamorphosis) justifies their appearance, and the crew made the most out of their capability to execute slapstick comedy, especially in Condon’s bustling, glamorous version of “Be Our Guest”. The voices from a wide range of talents, Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, just to name a few, are fantastic and engaging. For all that, the magic is still missing because the idea of unconcealable humanity is vastly lost to CG renditions. This could also be seen in the physiques of Beast and Gaston, or when Beast appears for the first time.
Put in a grand narrative of a time period nearing the French Evolution, Beauty and the Beast points up the harmony between classes, as well as the diversity of emerging communities. It sometimes struggles with the medium’s limitations or the exact execution of emotional sharpness, but above all that, this charming remake still finds a way to stir viewers with spellbinding visuals and delightful tunes.
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