Thursday, May 04, 2017

Hyped By Nostalgia - Movie Review of "Beauty and the Beast"

In late 2015 I heard that Disney had decided to make a live-action version of their 1991 animated classic, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is not my favorite animated Disney movie, but it is a classic. That particular film was the first movie to have three songs nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, was the first animated movie to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, established that the Disney Renaissance was real and not a one-time fluke, and became the first animated Disney film to be transformed into a successful Broadway musical.  Disney’s original BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is filled with memorable characters and songs and rightfully deserves to be called a modern Disney classic.

When I first heard of the live-action remake, I thought it was a great idea. There is so much in the animated film that could be fleshed out and enlivened.  However, as the release of the film approached and more and more marketing materials for the movie (photographed still, clips from the movie, and eventually the full soundtrack) were released, my hopes for the movie severely diminished. The computer animation looked askew to me, the vocals in the music weren’t as impressive as they should be, and much of what I read about the additions and changes in the plot seemed completely unnecessary to me. However, I attempted to put aside my reservations and watch the movie with no expectations. After having seen the movie, I can say the 2017 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a good movie and better than I expected, but it’s not a great film and somewhat undeserving of the hype and the accolades being bestowed upon it.

The movie follows the plot of Disney’s original animated film fairly closely. Belle (Emma Watson) is a free spirited woman living in a small village. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) is an artist and music box maker. Maurice and Belle are not natives of the village they live in and are viewed as a bit odd, particularly Belle. The village’s local hero, Gaston (Luke Evans) is a former soldier and avid hunter who is obsessed with marrying Belle, but she will not have him. While on the way to market to sell some music boxes, Maurice is attacked by wolves and takes shelter in a mysterious castle in the woods that is covered in snow (in June!). He soon discovers the castle is enchanted and ruled by an angry Beast (Dan Stevens) who imprisons him.  Belle finds her imprisoned father and trades places with him. Over a few days, Beast and Belle fall in love, he releases her so she can save Maurice from being taken to an asylum, and Gaston leads the villagers in an attack on the castle to “kill the Beast.”

There are several positives in the new movie.  Much of the acting in the film is top-notch. Emma Watson, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, and Stanley Tucci all deliver fine acting performances. Most of the characters are quite enjoyable to watch, including new characters (such as Tucci’s Maestro Cadenza) that weren’t in the original movie; these characters actually add to the story and aren’t a distraction. I liked the new song “Days in the Sun” better than the “Human Again” (from the Broadway musical that was later added to the original movie). I also liked Beast’s song “Evermore.” There really is a lot to enjoy about this new live-action movie. However,  there is much in the movie that prevents it from surpassing the quality of its predecessor.

First of all, there’s the computer animation of Beast. For most of the movie, it’s well done and blends seamlessly with everything else. However, there are a few moments where it’s obvious that Beast has mostly been computer generated. In a film of lesser quality or one that didn’t have a budget of $160 million, these instances could be more easily overlooked. However, with the details that went into the rest of the movie, these instances of poor animation are severely jarring. They break the spell of enchantment that everything else in the movie has tried so hard to create.

Then there is Lumiere. Lumiere is a crucial character in both versions of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. He’s portrayed decently enough in the new live-action version by Ewan McGregor, but the biggest problem I have with Lumiere is that he’s the only one of the “cursed” household servants who has human legs. Not only that, but sometimes he has them and other times he doesn’t. When the audience first sees Lumiere he’s whispering to Cogsworth (Ian McKellan) and appears as a regular candelabra with a normal base. Later, he suddenly appears hopping and jumping about on two golden, but obviously human legs. None of the other servants who are objects have legs that resemble human legs so why does Lumiere? Later in the film there is another moment where we see Lumiere standing and again, he has a base and looks like the Lumiere of the original animated movie. However, when we see him again the base is gone and he’s walking on two legs again. Towards the end of the movie the same thing happens again. It just doesn’t fit. The movie would have worked much better had it been more consistent: either allow all of the servants to move as freely as Lumiere or keep him as a true candelabra like he is in the original movie. I understand why the filmmakers did things this way (Lumiere moves around so much, it was easier). However, when you have $160 million dollar budget, easier is not an excuse and is a challenge that should have been met. There’s also Lumiere’s singing voice. Ewan McGregor is a good singer (see MOULIN ROUGE). However, if you only listened to him sing in this movie, you wouldn’t realize that. You would think he’s an ok singer, but not very good. I’m not sure what the problem was, but listening to Lumiere’s songs in this film make me think either something was wrong with McGregor’s voice during the production or he was only delivering a half-hearted singing performance.

Of course, McGregor’s voice sounds angelic to the singing of Emma Watson. Watson is a beautiful woman and an excellent actor. Like many, I’ve been a fan of hers since first seeing HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE. She captures the essence and spirit of Belle quite well. That is until she starts singing. She is not a terrible singer. However, she’s not great either, and Belle should really be a great singer.  Although it’s not done very often anymore, the filmmakers could have improved the movie by dubbing over Watson’s singing performances with someone who can sing better.

Then, there is Gaston. Luke Evans is miscast as Gaston. He somewhat looks the part in the face and he sings well enough, but he’s not tall enough or buff enough. However, his character has been somewhat altered in this version. In this incarnation, Gaston isn’t just a hunter, but he’s a decorated soldier with a bloodlust that is never satiated.  Make no mistake, Gaston has always been a villain. However, in the original story, he was a brawny villain that was full of charisma and he was driven by ambition, not bloodlust. In the new movie, Gaston does things that are completely out of character for him.  For instance, at one point he attempts to murder another character. The Gaston of the original movie would never have done that. Not only that, but in this version of the story, it seems like most of the villagers follow and admire Gaston not out of adoration, but because they are compelled to do so. It’s almost as though Gaston is part of magical spell that has fallen over the village and the town folk are attracted to Gaston even though it’s against their true nature. Regardless, the Gaston of this BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a poor imitation of the original and a failure to truly bring one of the great Disney villains to life.

Overall, the 2017 live-action version of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a good movie with some memorable moments. It attempts to replicate the magic of its animated predecessor, but doesn’t. It’s an enjoyable movie, but just not a great film. The movie is enjoying tremendous success, but that’s largely because of nostalgia and a year from now, people will re-watch the movie and realize it’s not as good as they thought it was.

Disney has several other live-action adaptations of its animated library coming to the big screen in the next few years (DUMBO, THE LITTLE MERMAID, THE LION KING, etc.). With the success of this version, my fear is that BEAUTY AND THE BEAST will be the standard that these other films attempt to emulate. While BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a good movie, it’s not as good as it should have been and never reaches the pinnacle of greatness that it should.  If the future live-action Disney films want to be great films, they should emulate the only truly great live-action adaptation brought to the screen so far: 2016’s THE JUNGLE BOOK. That movie successfully followed the plot and pacing of the original movie, but made the characters seem fresh and original. That’s the movie BEAUTY AND THE BEAST should have been, but isn’t.

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