BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) (Movie Review)

BeautyBeastDip**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
(for some action violence, peril, and frightening images)
Released:  March 17, 2017
Runtime: 129 minutes
Director:  Bill Condon
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Audra MacDonald, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw

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Some things aren’t certain as the sun. A surefire successful adaptation of an animated classic (by Disney itself, no less) that faithfully adheres to the source material appears to be one of them.

Also (because you’re wondering), LeFou is not gay. More on that in a bit.

Yes, there’s a lot of visual wizardry on display in the long-awaited live action version of Beauty and the Beast, but not much artistry.

Playing more like a narrative tour through a lavish theme park experience than an actual movie, this rendering of the beloved 1991 animated classic hits all the familiar beats and even adds some new ones, but the collective whole is a far-too-safe carbon copy so finely tuned for maximum marketing potential that there’s no room for actual magic.

This isn’t the first attempt by Disney to resurrect a live action adaption from their animated vault, but it’s less successful than some from that recent trend, namely Cinderella and The Jungle Book. Both exceeded expectations (even fears) not because they reinvented any wheels but, more fundamentally, directors Kenneth Branagh and Jon Favreau (respectively) allowed those versions to have their own distinct identities. This Beauty and the Beast, however, is too beholden to its source to stand (or resonate) on its own.

More unfortunate: due to a lack of distinct interpretive vision from director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Twilight: Breaking Dawn I & II), who can’t stop cutting between the multiple cameras he has positioned around his manufactured sets (real and computer generated), the restaging of some of the original’s most effective emotional moments are bland, even perfunctory, and fail to elicit the same chills, tears, and throat lumps. (For example, the Beast’s reveal of his library to Belle has gone from an intentionally sweet, romantic gesture to a flippantly styled “Oh, and there’s this” blurt of frustration.)

The broad lackluster result, in a sense, defines this film’s greatest value. In comparison to the first, it shows that material for a story or movie isn’t inherently good or bad, it’s what’s done with it that counts – and in 1991, they did it with 45 less minutes.

Surprisingly, the film opens with the promise of a fresh new vision via an extensive (and substantial) reimagining of the prologue. But then, from the opening title on, the rest simply offers small tweaks, added dialogue, beefed up comic relief (that feels randomly culled from a sitcom writers room), a few more songs (none equaling their canonized predecessors), and more backstory on both Belle and Beast that are recycled from the heap of childhood tragedy clichés. Even when the film’s being new, it’s really not.

I know what you diehards are thinking: I don’t want new. I want what I loved, just with real people, and that’s all I need. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work that way, at least not effectively. This film would’ve done well to maintain the approach of its prologue, where we’re literally seeing things we’ve not seen before yet still adhering to the core construct of the tale. Instead, the bulk of the movie plays out like a dutiful checklist.

Every last cent of the reported $160 million budget looks like it made it to the screen. Disney spared no expense in sets, costumes, and digital effects, but Condon is unable to authenticate it all into a believable world. Not that it has to equate our reality, but it doesn’t feel like its own reality. It’s lush but staid. Even the exterior locations are obviously studio soundstages and backlots matted to computer-generated backgrounds.

A good cast would help us get lost in the artifice but, while most offer respectable turns, none fully specify these roles with their own identity or gusto except for Luke Evans; his Gaston seems personalized, not mimicked, and he’s clearly having fun. Emma Watson as Belle, like the movie itself, embodies what you expect without actually owning it, as do most of the supporting players (save Ian McKellen as Cogsworth the clock, whose aristocratic spunk is a highlight).

The Scottish Ewan McGregor, however, is woefully miscast as the French candlestick Lumière. His accent is bad, his singing not much better, and the result is a lazy bit of star-casting in what is a crucial supporting role. Then there’s Josh Gad, whose LeFou is burdened with goofy shtick and never becomes a legitimate person. It feels like a performance still in development, as if we’re watching Gad’s process of finding the character instead of having arrived at it.

And as far as Gaston’s lackey being gay or not, the only people who’ll take offense at what’s seen here are gay people themselves. It’ll be when they realize how they were taken for dupes by an ill-conceived progressive marketing spin that blew up in the studio’s face. This LeFou is Disney’s first Gay Character about as much as Bill Clinton was our first Black President.

Then there’s the Beast. For all his computer-generated detail he’s still a slightly-off, at times awkward, pairing with a real-life actress. By some strokes too fluid and by others not fluid enough, the Beast is inconsistently weighted by gravity and the normal inertia of bulk moving through space. I don’t know if modern technology can do better, but the final product here is never convincing enough to get past the fact that we’re all still just pretending.

The same can be said of the anthropomorphized servants. Condon goes for a convincing photo-realism where some creative liberties would’ve been more appealing. Similarly, his approach to their featured showstopper “Be Our Guest” could’ve used less aesthetic literalism and more theatricality.

To clarify, despite my level of nitpicking (the kind that remaking an iconic work inevitably provokes), this Beauty and the Beast is not a disaster. On balance, it’s a fun way to re-experience something very familiar, and people will leave happy and satisfied (though not entirely transported, or moved). On its own merits this works well enough, but it won’t be the one that people continue to revisit for the next twenty-five years.

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