With all due respect to Beauty and her Beast, I wanted to see a new “Beauty and the Beast” movie as much as I wanted someone to drive a power drill through my temple. I’ve seen the original Disney animated film and I like it just fine. Don’t be shallow. I get it. True love is based on internal beauty, not external. Wonderful. Belle and Mr. Beast tenderly waltzing in a ballroom while talking teacups, candelabras and clocks look on. Cute. I still had little interest in seeing a live action/CGI remake.
Ultimately, I attended the press screening for Bill Condon’s film because its one of the first big motion picture events of the year and because the studio showed it to Seattle press two weeks in advance, which is usually a sign of confidence. Having now seen it, I can say that the world didn’t need another “Beauty and the Beast” movie, especially another Disney produced “Beauty and the Beast,” but you can do a whole lot worse. Much like Kenneth Branagh’s live action remake of “Cinderella” from a few years ago, “Beauty and the Beast” is an unnecessary if still charming affair. All of the pieces, while familiar, are executed with enough exuberance and wit to make it a pleasant watching experience.
After a brief prologue, we’re transported to a small village in France, where the sweet and bookish Belle (Emma Watson) lives with her oh-so-sweet dad Maurice (Kevin Kline, such a comforting and genuine onscreen presence). Everyone else in the town thinks Belle is weird because she likes to read, which struck me as both amusing and sad. As we see later on in the explosive finale, these people aren’t the sharpest and are easily swayed by fear and Fake News. In this regard, the film makes an urgent case for the value of literacy.
Anyway, through circumstances I don’t want to bore you with (and you know) Belle is captured by The Beast, (Dan Stevens) a former Prince who was transformed into a beast for being too shallow and selfish. As you can imagine, this has made him into a rather sad and volatile creature. Belle is kept in his old, decrepit palace, where his helpers and friends also live. They’ve been transformed into various household objects — dressers, candelabras, clocks etc. Things are rocky at first but as the days go on Belle and Beast begin to take a liking to each other. The beast isn’t as scary as he seems. Essentially, it’s Disney’s “Stockholm Syndrome,” with l talking teacups and upbeat musical numbers.
I don’t need to go on because you know the plot. The biggest problem with this rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” is that, like most big studio remakes, there’s little in the way of new. The narrative beats are all the same, making the film relatively free of surprises. There isn’t even an attempt to make this one tonally different from its predecessor (giving the tale a darker spin, for example). Condon’s film is a cheerful, colorful live action rehash of the animated film. Considering it had a whopping one hundred and sixty million dollar budget it would have been nice to see some substantial innovation and deviation.
What keeps the film afloat is the lively and witty work by the cast. There isn’t a flat or phoned in performance to be found, even in the minor roles. While it takes her a few scenes to adjust, Watson ultimately creates an engagingly plucky and independent heroine. Even as a kidnapping victim she refuses to be passive and scared. Meanwhile, Stevens’ performance gets drastically better in the second half — as The Beast loosens up and becomes more sensitive, his performance gets to be more dimensional.
However, the best work comes from the supporting cast. The Beast’s helpers and friends (made up of a strong and diverse cast including the likes of Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, and Ian McKellen) make for a vibrant comedic chorus. Through their constant, affectionate bickering you can feel a genuine bond and sense of shared history between them. I also got a kick out of the way they would frequently undermine The Beast’s authority and brazenly mock him. They know him too well. I could honestly watch an entire movie about these chatty animate objects. Luke Wilson is surprisingly good as the overly cocky and cowardly Gaston, The Beast’s romantic rival and main villain. He takes what should be a one-dimensional bad guy and totally owns the role — giving a delectably arrogant and rotten performance. Overall, these enthusiastic characters greatly enhance the central narrative, making its redundant and cut and dry nature easier to tolerate.
From a technical standpoint, “Beauty and The Beast” is dazzling. Sarah Greenwood’s production design is richly textured and detailed while Tobias A Schliessler’s cinematography is glossy and kinetic. The way his camera fluidly swoops in, out and around the various sets and lavish musical numbers is exhilarating. I don’t think this version of “Beauty and the Beast” has the legs to stand the test of time but in the moment it's an entertaining and well-executed diversion.