Words that came to mind while watching the “Beauty and the Beast” remake: Stilted, empty, lazy, ugly, perfunctory, miscast, and cynical. I feel that the people who will say they like it will not recognize the difference between liking a movie because it’s good, and liking a movie because it simply reminds you of a different good movie you previously enjoyed. Not since Gus Van Sant’s Psycho has a remake been so faithful while completely missing the point and lacking the magic of the original.
There’s a lot of blame to go around here. Certainly director Bill Condon deserves a heaping pile of blame. Why was the choice made for the film’s visual style to be dark and dark with an ugly blue/purple filter over the whole thing? To take a gorgeous animated film and reduce it to such uninspired, muddy visuals should be a crime. While the sets seem like they are grand, and a lot of hard work must have gone into the production design and art direction, the settings just sit there in the frame, uninspired and boring. What a waste. Condon used to be the talented director of films like “Gods and Monsters” and “Kinsey”, but since then he has done overrated garbage like directing “Dreamgirls” and co-writing the film adaptation of “Chicago”. Then he directed the last two “Twilight” films and, well, whatever talent he once had is dead and buried. Condon has taken an animated film so renowned for its visual splendor that it became the first animated film to receive a Best Picture nomination and made it a lackluster, muddy mess with lame CGI and an unappealing color palette.
The film is woefully miscast. Emma Watson, while talented in other things, makes for a bad Belle. While she doesn’t exactly phone in her performance, she certainly Skypes it in. You can tell that behind her eyes she has no passion for this role or film, and would much rather be doing an indie movie or a drama of some sort, but likely took this role for the money and as a resume builder to allow her the freedom to choose more fulfilling roles. When her character makes the leap from angry at being imprisoned by the Beast (Dan Stevens, who does an okay job despite the film’s choice to portray the character with mediocre CGI instead of animatronics and/or make-up), it is so abrupt and feels so out of character that any hope of emotional investment is killed by the whiplash the script just gave you. Despite this live action remake adding screen time to the animated original, the film doesn’t let the story breathe so that the characters’ arcs feel natural, instead of just the characters doing what they do because they did so in the original movie. Of course, what works dramatically in a Disney cartoon is different from what works in a live action film with a visual style indicating an enhanced and ahistorical “realism” that is meant to be more grounded and “realistic” than the cartoon. For a character to turn on a dime with a musical interlude in an animated film feels fine in animation. In live action, not so much.
That’s the main problem with the script: it is often so faithful to the original that it shoots itself in the leg. I tend to prefer adaptations that are super faithful, but there are necessary alterations that need to be made when jumping from the medium of Disney animated feature to a live action film, and this new film doesn’t do any of them. It doesn’t want to decide between lighthearted silliness and gritty realism because it doesn’t seem to understand that what is lighthearted in animation can feel like full-on slapstick in live action, and what passes for drama in that same animation will match in that film, but seem very jarring against the slapstick when performed by real actors on real (and digital) sets. Like Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” taught us, mere recreation does not take into the ineffable qualities under and behind and inside a film that make it what it is. You cannot carbon copy the animated movie into a live action format and expect it to work as well.
Then again, maybe they just didn’t care. It’s quite possible the filmmakers knew that if they threw up some pretty and likable actors (even if miscast) and had them sing the same songs people have loved since 1991, then people would like the film because they liked the original, and this film will take them back to how they felt when they first watched the original movie. It’s like how masturbating to the memory of a previous good sexual experience can evoke the pleasure of that sexual experience…but it’s nothing but an echo, less fulfilling and relying solely on the original experience for any pleasure it causes.
Another comparison would be watching a high school drama club performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays. They may hit the major moments, you might enjoy parts of it because you like the play itself and seeing it performed in general is kind of nice, but it’s always going to be lackluster and nowhere near what it would be like watching it performed at the Globe Theater in London. Saying the words, hitting the beats, and going through the motions is the bare minimum, and that’s what this film does. It moves along in a utilitarian, paint-by-numbers fashion through all of the original films high points, doing nothing to make ITSELF a good film, expecting the goodwill the original film generated to make the audience feel like they’ve had a good experience instead of wasted their money for a watered down, uglier version of a better movie they probably already own at home.
I must also mention that Gaston is also miscast. Luke Evans is a fine actor, but he’s too old for the role and not as pretty-boy-meets-muscle-daddy for the role. He also doesn’t find the right note for the character. Gaston is such a broad character that he needs to be an over the top douche, like Nathon Fillion’s Captain Hammer from “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog”, or he needs to be a more realistic portrait of a narcissistic masculine asshole (think guys who won’t shut up about Crossfit). Evans tries to thread a needle between the two (much like the film itself tries to be both cartoon and realistic) and winds up with a performance that isn’t enough of either quality to do the role justice. While we’re on the subject of Gaston, we should discuss Josh Gad’s LeFou, as much has been made about this character being gay. Well, he’s not explicitly gay, but rather the film codes him as gay, which is nothing new. There are plenty of characters in Disney animation who have been coded as gay (Scar from “The Lion King”, I am looking in your direction), and Gad’s LeFou breaks no new ground in that respect. If his sexuality hadn’t been announced in a press release, he’s be like any other coded character: obvious to most, and denied by others.
I actively disliked the film, because for all of the hard work that obviously went into it, and with so much money spent on it, it feels so lazy and cynical. Why bother trying to craft a good live action remake of a beloved animated classic when you can just do the bare minimum in terms of adaptation and let people’s love of the original trick them into thinking they are seeing a good movie. There are a handful of things to like here: Kevin Kline works as Belle’s father, the modulation on the Beast’s voice is nice, and the servant characters are brought to life with voice actors and decent CGI which make their scenes function more or less as they should, even if the big musical set pieces do not (ugly, garish, under lit CGI abounds in “Be Our Guest”). Also, trying to have Watson and Stevens recreate the animated film’s famous dance number step-by-step does not work in live action, as the steps feel forced and less fluid, and you wonder why these two people would choose to dance like this with no communication between them or any practice. Animation allows for an easier suspension of disbelief about such things than live action does.
The greatest failure of the film is that Watson and Stevens have zero chemistry, though whether that is because Watson is so obviously bored, Stevens is hidden behind frigid CGI motion capture , or because the film does a piss poor job of convincing us they go from hating each other to loving each other based on the Beast showing Belle his library and almost nothing else, I do not know. Likely both in equal quantities. Since this love story is the heart of the film, feeling no love, and the film not convincing us that they are in love, leaves the film with a hole in its center where that heart should be.
One more minor quibble: this film takes place sometime in the mid-to-late 1800s, most likely. While I appreciate Disney’s attempt at diverse casting, I have a hard time accepting that there was so much racial equality and tolerance between Whites and Blacks in France during this time that interracial romance (of which the film has two, even if the participants are sentient household objects for the bulk of the film) is calmly accepted. The film is obviously not trying to be a realistic depiction of history, but perhaps because the film so poorly tries to ground its action in “realism” it sticks out as anachronistic.
So call the film what you want: an echo, a shadow, a high school drama club production, or masturbation. The point remains that is a lackluster remake that gets its visual style wrong, its casting wrong, its tone wrong, and its mere conception wrong. If you were able to forget the original movie existed, and just judged this remake on its own merits, it is sloppy and just not good. C-