Beauty and the Beast: All Bark and No Bite

If you’ve been paying attention to the film industry for the past few years, you’ll have noticed a steady uptick in film remakes. In fact, there are three that you can watch in theaters right now, should you be so inclined. There’s ChiPs, a “revitalization” of the late 70’s-early 80’s TV series, the Scarlett Johansson-starring Ghost in the Shell, which is adapted from the manga and anime of the same name. The final and most high-profile release of the three is Disney’s extravagant, glossy and wholly unnecessary remake of its own 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast.

Yes, the reason for this particular remake is understandable (spoiler: it’s all about the money, baby) and yes, the 1991 version is in itself a kid-friendly remake of the 1946 Jean Cocteau film. However, its 2017 counterpart retains the songs and characterizations of the 1991 film. So please, spare me. The 1991 film is plenty original.

Unfortunately, that’s more than can be said of this new Emma Watson/Dan Stevens vehicle. By my count, this is the fourth film in this new line of Disney’s live action remakes, following Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella and The Jungle Book (I don’t personally count Maleficent, because it’s really not a strict remake of Sleeping Beauty), and probably the least successful remake of the bunch. I haven’t seen Burton’s Alice in Wonderland since its release, but I remember thinking that it at the very least added some substantial visual flavor that, while occasionally off-putting, injected some much-needed invention. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella almost felt subversive in its non-revisionist approach, and in turn actually improved upon the original Disney film. It actually gave a motivation behind the central romance, as well shaded in the relationship between Cinderella and her evil stepmother. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but I found it sweet and highly watchable. By contrast, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book took a much darker and more complex spin on the original Disney film to mostly successful effect. It may not have improved that much upon the 1967 classic, but it was entertaining and more importantly, different. It justified its own existence. Herein lies the problem with this new adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. Beyond the obvious financial imperative, I’m not sure who this film is really for. You can make the argument that it’s for people who grew up on the original to show to their kids, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d rather watch this version, other than the fact that it stars Hermione Granger. Maybe that’s just my opinion.

I also don’t want to make it sound like it’s a film completely bereft of merit. There are things to like about it, namely the performances. Both the voice actors and live action performers do a very good job, but the star of the show is Luke Evans’ Gaston. Yes, it’s as underwritten as it was in the 1991 film, but his presence really fills the room. He’s operatic and hammy, and it seems like he’s having a great time. Emma Watson and Dan Stevens also manage some good chemistry. And the songs are still great, even if some of the lyrics aren’t changed to fit the new story. I’ll give you an example: in his song, Gaston describes himself as a “the size of a barge,” but Luke Evans is actually shorter than I am in real life. The only difference between us is that he’s really in shape. Here’s another example: in “Something There,” the Beast sings, “And when we touched she didn’t shudder at my paw.” This doesn’t make any sense, because in the movie he doesn’t actually have paws, just furry hands. There are several more that I could point out, but I’ll stop there. They’re more than a little aggravating.

To be fair to the filmmakers, I’m not sure there’s a good alternative. I wouldn’t really want them to change the lyrics, as that would throw off the whole song. And I definitely wouldn’t want them to remove the songs, as they’re easily the best part of this film. The only way these inconsistencies wouldn’t have bothered me is if they had more faithfully recreated the original film, but then that removes almost all hypothetical reason for a remake. Hopefully you’re starting to notice that this is a problem without an easy answer.

I touched on this before, but I’ll expound upon it now: the Beast just isn’t scary or animalistic enough. In a world where we’re blessed with incredibly realistic and unnerving motion capture performances (Gollum from Lord of the Rings, Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Smaug from The Hobbit come to mind), this portrayal of the Beast never quite hits home, at least not to the level it did in the 1991 version. This veneer of artificiality extends to the rest of the visual effects. The practical and CGI sets are lavishly constructed, but they don’t feel quite as grounded in reality as Cinderella’s did, for example. They lack the whimsy of the animated film, as well as the reality needed to anchor the emotions of the film. This strands it in a sort of uncanny valley.

There are other problems inherent in adapting this particular story in live-action. As anyone who’s seen the 1991 film can attest, the beating heart of the film is the relationship between Belle and the Beast, and this version doesn’t quite sell it. I think I know why. It’s because an audience is typically willing to give a little bit more of the benefit of the doubt to the story of animated film, as it’s easy to be caught up in the visuals and the charm of it. However, casting real people in these roles can illuminate some of the storytelling problems, and that’s certainly the case here. The foundation of the central relationship feels oddly problematic and Stockholm syndrome-y. It doesn’t help that Belle doesn’t really mention her home life until it becomes relevant right at the end of the film. Perhaps instead of adding a couple songs that don’t resonate at all, or a few needless plot points, those extra 25 minutes could have been used to strengthen the foundation of the film. As such, it devolves into a rickety mess.

All in all, the film is enjoyable for all the reasons the original is enjoyable. If this were an original film, I would probably give it a higher grade, but I feel like I have to mark it down a little bit because it’s an adaptation that doesn’t really add any new attributes to an already existing film. It takes a classic film and makes it completely average. I don’t really know how to put it any more simply than that.

2 out of 5 Teacups

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