REVIEW – Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Produced by: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman
Screenplay by: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Edited by: Virginia Katz
Cinematography by: Tobias Schliessler
Music by: Alan Menken
Songs by: Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, Tim Rice
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Nathan Mack
Based on the 1991 film Beauty and the Beast and the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
It’s hard to take a movie like Beauty and the Beast and review it on its own terms. It would be easy to compare this film to Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho, which infamously almost exactly remade the original film, save for a few stylistic choices, color cinematography, a new cast, and the fact that the film was absolute crap. I’ve heard some compare this film, however, to a new cast simply taking over what is essentially a theatrically released play, which is certainly a nice and valid sentiment. The problem with that, however, is this doesn’t excuse the fact that this 2017 edition is still ultimately inferior to the otherwise identical original.
If you haven’t seen the original, somehow, then allow for me to recap for you what both adaptations of this public domain and oft-adapted fairy tale brings to the table… Belle is an odd, brainy girl living in a small town in France, bored with her life and the subject of gossip among the conformist townsfolk who can’t appreciate her independence. Her father, an inventor, heads out of town one day and finds himself lost in the woods and seeking refuge in an enchanted castle. Unbeknownst to Belle’s father, the castle is headed by a beast, and he is not pleased with the intrusion, imprisoning the man. Belle is troubled when her father’s horse returns home without him and goes out to find him, eventually finding the castle and offering herself in his place. The beast, a former prince who was cursed along with his servants by an enchantress disguised as an old beggar woman after he refused to offer her shelter, is smitten by Belle, but she understandably refuses his advances. Thus begins a process of beginning to understand one another and, should she return his affections in earnest, so, too, does the process of reversing the spell over the castle.
Again, nothing has changed in that regard in this film. Attempts are made to give Belle a bit more agency and the beast more kindness to hopefully stave off the continued accusations of idealizing Stockholm syndrome, but I doubt any of it will ultimately assuage any complaints. Personally, I understand that issue, but I choose to instead focus on the allegorical context, with the film noting that appearances and even first impressions often bely one’s true nature, for better or for worse, and I think that both versions state that message fairly well while offering up plenty of theatrics to keep us engaged. That is really not a problem for me for either version. What is a problem, however, is that this (mostly) live action remake still sticks to the original structure so exactly that all of its shortcomings become far more pronounced as a result.
One of the best things about Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 remake of Disney’s Cinderella was that it kept a lot of the core concepts and characters there and then pretty much completely redid everything else. You get to know about why Cinderella is still so kind in the face of absolute cruelty. You understand but are not provided excuses for why Lady Tremaine and her daughters treat Cinderella the way they do. You get more development between Cinderella and the Prince, even before the big ball. The look of the film is completely original and merely borrows basic design concepts from the original film. You don’t have to endure the squeaky voices of singing mice while still enjoying the sight of some cute rodent friends who know their place on the sidelines. And, best of all, you don’t have otherwise respectable actors being forced to sing songs they aren’t qualified to sing.
The original Beauty and the Beast is an iconic film, and Disney knew that the original film’s biggest strengths was that everyone still loved all those songs and that many of its fans from back in 1991 are still attached to their memories of that film and have likely moved on to starting families of their own now and would like to impart those memories upon them through this new edition. The problem is that the film looks the same while also being far less interesting to look at. The camera work is stationary at times when the original animated version has it moving dramatically. In one moment, Belle stands still and clutches a book to their chest and sings to nobody in particular in the middle of a street. Compare that to the original, where she was dramatic, expressive, and illustrative, the camera showing us the book’s illustrations as she sang next to a fountain to the only creature paying attention, a stray sheep, who is, much like herself, expected to move back in with the herd.
Most depressing of all, sadly, is that Emma Watson, while an ideal Belle for a non-musical live action remake, just does not have the vocals for a singing role. It’s painful when the guy playing the goofball sidekick to the film’s villain has a better natural singing voice even while affecting a comedic persona than the film’s lead actress. I’m not blaming Watson for this – again, she’s ideally suited to the non-singing parts, and I’m sure she has a lovely singing voice in person – but there is some noticeable pitch correction going on within the film, and compared to Paige O’Hara’s Broadway voice, it’s both the first and most glaring issue I had with this version. Other actors fair bit better – Luke Evans and Josh Gad being the obvious standouts as Gaston and LeFou – but even when they’re not nearly as altered as Watson’s voice, as is the case with Ewan McGregor and Emma Thompson as Lumiere and Mrs. Potts, respectively, even their voices can’t compare to the years of experience behind Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury’s renditions of the same songs. I kinda feel bad for these guys, as if they were set up from the very beginning.
All is not lost, however. Not by a longshot, in fact. Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent this is not. While this movie was doomed to pale in comparison, I do still like it quite a bit. The effects are fairly impressive (though pervasive to the point of wondering if this really counts as a “live action” remake and not a hybrid half-CGI animated film), the 3D in my showing was incredible but not overly showy, and, again, the non-singing portions from the live actors were pretty great. It even fixes the issues with the original’s vague timeline of events. Where the film does deviate is in expanded backstories, such as why Belle and her father are living without her mother in that tiny town, or why the enchantress felt the entire castle was worthy of being put under the spell, or just tiny adjustments here and there that gave more context about what’s happening and who these characters are without over-explaining things. They’re little nuggets of bonus information that change nothing fundamental but are still welcome.
Most impressive, however, were the new songs – particularly a song that’s given to the previously songless beast, appropriately delivered at a pivotal emotional turning point for him. Written by the returning Alan Menken and Tim Rice, “Evermore” is beautifully performed, eloquently written, and adds to the power of his internal transformation well before his physical one. If ever I had a reason to seriously consider buying this version, even though I have the superior original, this is it. Not even the cut “Human Again” sequence that was reinserted into the original film for its anniversary home video a while back compares. This song came out of nowhere and elevated everything that came afterward.
So, yeah, this movie – this movie was fine. It was completely unnecessary and didn’t even go the wiser route by adapting the stage play version of the film, which itself also has a few different songs. But, again, what’s here is, well… it’s simply fine. I do not hate this film. It does not undermine the original like the direct-to-video sequel and has a clear reverence for it that it at least strives admirably to attain. I enjoyed and liked my time and do not even regret seeing it in 3D. I would consider buying it at normal price and would even definitely buy it at a discount. What’s changed, on a story level, is either neutral to the quality of the film or even a welcome alteration (though, I guess we all know by now that one particular character revelation earned the ire of some). While the singing pales in comparison to the original and is quite honestly a comparatively unforgiveable sin, as the original’s performances are all so brilliant, it’s also not awful enough to get too angry over, since many of these guys can still at least sing well enough. I also cannot stress enough that the film does offer up a very strong musical performance that is all its own, almost as penance. It’s almost good enough to even make you consider forgiving and forgetting that any of its prior sins actually existed in the first place. Almost.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5