“Beauty and the Beast” Pays Fitting Homage to Predecessors, But Can’t Compete with Masterpieces

When remaking a classic, withstanding the inevitable comparisons requires either flawless execution or inspired novelty.  Disney’s latest live-action adaptation has an even greater challenge, as it must compete with two masterpieces:  the studio’s own animated feature from 1991, and Jean Cocteau’s magnificent romantic fantasy La Belle et la Bête (1946).  And though this iteration of the story pays ample homage to both of these predecessors, minor blemishes and stylistic issues prevent the remake from reaching the same heights.  Still, a film should not be judged worthless if it fails to equal titans.  Beauty and the Beast does a great deal right; it simply doesn’t replicate the Earth-shattering experience of its ancestors.

Helmed by director Bill Condon, Beauty and the Beast is the first of the Disney live-action remakes that fully embraces the musical aspect of the animated feature it adapts, and the movie is stronger for it.   (The Jungle Book tried to go halfsies on the music, and it was the worst part of an otherwise outstanding film).  The songs from the original are all recognizable and pleasing, but are sometimes lacking in the execution.  The plot is familiar, but holds a few surprises and even improvements.  There is a lot to like from a performance standpoint, especially from Emma Watson, Luke Evans, and a scene-stealing Kevin Kline (as Belle’s papa Maurice).  Hence, isolated elements are strong, but the sum falls a little short.

The familiar music has the power to melt the heart of even the most cynical remake hater, but some songs strike stronger chords than others.  “Belle”, “Something There”, and especially, “Kill the Beast” are wonderful, but there is some weird auto-tuning on Emma Watson’s voice that detracts from Belle’s best songs.  Gaston’s song is a little too raucous, and I had a hard time picking out the words.  “Kill the Beast” is pitch-perfect (I just love the Macbeth reference), and even sneaks in a wonderful new line or two from LeFou.  For the eponymous ballad (and other songs featuring Mrs. Potts), I’ll simply say that Angela Lansbury has four Tony  awards for best actress in a musical, and Emma Thompson . . . does not.  Continuing the refrain of this piece, it’s not that she’s bad – she’s just not legendary.

As for the plot . . . you know the plot.  You’re here for differences.  There are substantial additions to Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, and most of them are appreciated.  The prologue sequence is longer and more-developed, which I enjoyed seeing.  Of course, some will prefer the directness of the original, but I thought this was a fine embellishment.  A few details in the village with Belle are brilliant, especially (and I can’t believe I am writing this) Belle making a washing machine.  Many minor details are altered, but nothing even approaches heretical.  It’s sufficient to make this version not feel like a beat-for-beat retelling, and that’s definitely appreciated.

Most impressively, this version improves upon the budding relationship between Belle and the beast.  The animated version feels pretty rushed and is mostly handled through the song, “Something There”.  This version feels much more organic and complete.  Instead of sweeping into a quick song, there’s a genuine kindling of love here, based upon discovering unexpected commonality.  Watson’s Belle is a big Shakespeare fan, and when the beast completes a line for her and then surprises her with his acumen, you can tell she’s impressed and actually sees “something there.  The library scene is handled better too; instead of the beast milking it to impress Belle, the beast just kind of stumbles into it.   A similar amount of screen time is spent on the growth of the relationship, but it feels like much more is accomplished.

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Stealing the white rose.  Hooray for parallelism!

Lovers of Cocteau’s 1946 version of the story will notice homages from Condon and the writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos.  Maurice’s “crime” that earns him a life sentence in the Beast’s dungeon is borrowed from Cocteau’s film, not the 1991 version of the story.  This choice also happens to imbue much more thematic weight, parallelism, and dramatic irony to the story.  It’s a brilliant choice, and easily the strongest allusion to the past versions of the film.  Cocteau’s version has a pair of magic gloves that allow Belle to travel anywhere she wishes, a concept re-packaged in the remake in the form of an enchanted book.  There are more subtle references, too.  If you look closely at some of the lights, you can see that the fixtures are arms, much like in the 1946 version.  The CGI can’t quite hold a candle to the fantastical imagery of the original, though.

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These things are so sweet.  I’ll take this opportunity to encourage you to watch Jean Cocteau’s version.  I am an absolute sucker for Disney, and The Beauty and the Beast may be their best animated feature ever.  Cocteau’s is better.

And there’s the rub.

The CGI is an issue at points in the remake.  The CGI used to make the beast simply isn’t up to the challenge.  In animation, the suspension of disbelief if much easier, as the whole aesthetic is fabricated and fantastic, so everything fits together easily.  And in 1946, there weren’t any computers to fall back on, so Cocteau took advantage of some stunning makeup and costuming to make his beast, so everything was real and in-frame. Side-by-side-by-side, the work in this film comfortably takes home the bronze medal:

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This was accomplished over 70 years ago, so there’s no excuse to do worse today.
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Great Disney stylization; fits in perfectly with the rest of the film.
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Oops.

The other instances of CGI mostly hit, like Lumiere and Cogsworth.  Some look a bit wonky, especially when compared to their animated counterparts.  Chiefly, I am referring to the wardrobe and Mrs. Potts, who both feel out of place for some reason.  Again, it isn’t abject failure.  It is hard to meld CGI and live-action in a convincing aesthetic, and sometimes the result strays a little too far from the mark.

The characters that don’t come from a computer are performed magnificently.  Maurice (Kevin Kline) is much more three-dimensional here than he was in the animated film, and I found Kline’s performance endearing and surprising.  Luke Evans is pitch-perfect as Gaston, plenty full of stupid bravado, and a great rabble-rouser at all points.  I may not agree with everything they did with the character, but Evans is undoubtedly a strong point.  Josh Gad does just fine as LeFou (who is gay, but relax about it).  The character also has more depth and a little bit of an arc to him, so he isn’t just a simple sidekick here.  All-told, the humans are the strength of this film.

Especially Emma Watson.

Watson’s Belle is a great interpretation of the character.  The 1991 Belle is a caring bookworm who wants a more meaningful life.  The 1946 version is a principled girl who loves her father and will do anything to save him.  This new Belle keeps the book-loving, the sincerity, and the adoration for her father, and adds an ingenuity and capability that is incredibly refreshing.  Where 1991 Belle sat sad in her room, Watson’s Belle is making an escape rope out of linens.  Watson brings much more confidence to Belle, and translates her intelligence from a world of books into reality.  As her love for the beast grows, you see it dawning on her face, and she handles other emotional scenes with her father with equal deftness.  It’s a great performance in a film filled with them.

The Beauty and the Beast may be the greatest animated film ever, and La Belle et la Bete is certainly one of the greatest romantic fantasies ever.  So no, the latest adaptation of the story is not the equal of these two masterpieces, but it doesn’t really have to be.  It pays its respects, and then offers its own interpretation of the story by augmenting characters and re-focusing aspects of the story.  The film is technically sound, sports accomplished performances, and rouses the imagination every bit as much as the animated original.  It just can’t equal its practically perfect aesthetic.  But the astounding music still enchants, the vibrant visuals still inspire, and the timeless themes still resonate.  Beauty and the Beast is one of the strongest remakes you’ll ever see, but its masterpiece progenitors will forever obscure most of what makes it great.

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