Just the same as the hairy, fanged half of titular couple, Beauty and the Beast is a tough nut to crack. Standing on its own, this is a movie that succeeds at quite a bit. It’s beautiful, it sounds a treat, and it has some damn good casting. But as soon as you size it up against the 1991 original, cracks start to appear that weren’t there before.
In many ways, that isn’t a fair comparison. Movies should mostly stand apart from whatever came before it. You should be able to analyze a film within a grander mythos but independent from its prequels or sequels. But this is also a remake, with its final trailer even revealing itself as a shot-for-shot recreation of the original final trailer.
More than that, it’s a remake of an inimitable classic that dominated the Academy Awards Best Music categories and became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. Like, do I even need to tell you the set up? You know how it goes: a young woman named Belle (Emma Watson) is held captive by the Beast (Dan Stevens) after he demands someone be punished for her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) and his unwelcome intrusion on the Beast’s castle.
There are, however, subtle but vital tweaks to the story made by director Bill Condon and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. In this way, the movie ends up being more love letter than remake in spirit, though visually and aurally it certainly is the latter. For example, the curse that turned the Beast into a shaggy denizen has been calibrated to more deeply affect the transformed servants of the castle as well as the nearby villagers.
As you likely recall, the Beast used to be an arrogant and snide prince, but after a fateful encounter with a beggar, he is cursed to live as a horrid creature with his servants turned into inanimate objects. The only way to lift the curse is for the Beast to find true love by the time the last petal falls from a rose given by the beggar. But now, the curse has an added urgency. With each petal that falls, the inhabitants of the castle become more and more entrenched in their candlestick form, losing bits of their humanity along the way.
It’s a darkness and desperation that was almost entirely absent from the original, and it’s welcome in this age of Disney rediscovering how to make classic tales (save for that terrible Cinderella movie). It’s now not just about a girl whose sole purpose is to love and be loved; instead, she’s imbued with agency. Her decision to take her father’s place is far more prominent than the Beast’s acceptance of her choice. (It doesn’t hurt that she’s also demonstrably smart and capable in ways the original Belle never was.)
The movie as a whole, in fact, makes some progressive moves, though only some land with the intended potency. Expanding the diversity of the castle’s servants to include two women of color is fantastic and it’s made even better by their roles becoming more involved than before. But then you examine the much-discussed change of LeFou’s (Josh Gad) sexuality to be openly gay and it feels rather empty, as if these alterations were just checkboxes to be ticked to achieve progressiveness.
The cast, however, is perfectly suited for making their characters work, whatever that includes. Watson, for instance, embodies this new Belle incredibly well. The new backstory and her better realized capabilities have formed her into a mysterious and guarded person while still being inquisitive and feisty. Admittedly, though, she doesn’t quite carry the necessary vocal chops. She’s damn good, but her weaknesses show more clearly in her solo tunes where her abilities are stretched, especially when showcased against Stevens’ considerable pipes.
Then there’s Luke Evans’s Gaston, a casting choice that could not possibly be improved upon. He bears just the right amount of ignorance mixed with malice, eschewing the character’s previous iteration as unwittingly dim and choosing to be purposefully terrible. (You can really see that come through in “The Mob Song.”) And when you combine him with Gad’s perfectly forlorn and sycophantic LeFou, you have one of the best numbers in the whole film in “Gaston” and a damn good argument for this live-action remake.
This also seems like a movie that could have only existed in this time. Swirling the midst of an age of reboots and remakes, it also lands squarely in an era of sufficiently impressive CGI. It captures both the reality and cartoonish nature of a talking clock and operatic wardrobe, contrasting their animated movements with a grotesque degradation of their aging and broken parts.
Most notably, though, it fully and believably puts a human Belle in the fabricated arms of a virtual Beast. It all comes together in the dizzying and blinding spectacle of the iconic ballroom scene. The magic and majesty of the moment feels as if it is swallowing you up just as their story reaches the perfect peak.
It does, however, take far too long to get there. Or anywhere, really. Pacing is perhaps the greatest foe to their love story. With all the new elements introduced, they aren’t folded into the source material so much as stacked on top. At best, it buffers the transitions between scenes, and at worst forces the movie to a glacial crawl to the next beat. They feel as much willfully ignored as they are accidentally forgotten.
Take, for example, Belle’s newfound engineering knack. And her desire to educate a young girl. These seem like rather large components not only to the character but to the world of the movie (and our world, actually) as well. She stands apart from the villagers for myriad reasons and then…what? She’s immediately removed. Her growth as a character is welcome, but the utility of it in the story is wasted.
It’s hard to say any of it ruins the movie, though. It tries so many different things that the ones that don’t stick end up being forgotten as so many more shine far more brightly. Beauty and the Beast is a stunning display that suffers to get there, but get there it does.
Final Score: 7 out of 10