There was very little reason for Disney to have remade a live action version of their 1991 movie Beauty and the Beast. No artistic reason, at least. Financially, I expect it was a pretty good gamble. But that 1991 version, with its predictably high standard of artistry and inescapably catchy tunes by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, was almost perfectly designed for the wonder of animation. Both the exaggerated comic exploits of Gaston and Lefou, and the magical embrace of the Beast’s servants, flourished in their drawn forms. Musicals, after all, are an absurdist creation, given that most anything this side of Cabaret requires us to accept sudden bursts of singing. Comic musicals further the exaggeration. Magical comic musicals push the envelope about as far as they can. They just seem inherently better suited for animation.
Which isn’t to say that there have not been successes in this particular genre. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 musical version, is a genuine triumph. But admit it, the worst thing about it are the Oompah Loompahs, because it’s just not that easy to render them as live action figures.
But I digress.
When visionary artist Jean Cocteau adapted Jeanne-Marie Leprince’s original La Belle et la Bete back in 1946, he did so without either animation or musical numbers. The results were exquisite, so much so that there were precious few attempts to recreate it on film for several decades. In ’91, Disney offered a new take, less magical and mysterious but more user-friendly and hummable. And now, they have tried to recapture the magic, maintaining the songs, but scrapping the animation.
They have been partly successful. That success comes from several factors.
The source material, though requiring genuine sensitivity and artistic craft, remains extremely potent. If you can master the look of the beast and his servants, the story is almost foolproof. Even the most cynical hearts will find it hard not to choke up when Beauty returns and the Beast is redeemed. (Maybe I should have said SPOILER ALERT there, but I’m guessing you know the story by now.)
Secondly, Menken and Ashman wrote an entire score of hits. Three of them are about as good as it gets in their respective genres. The comic “Gaston,” which introduces the story’s villain, the show stopping set-piece “Be Our Guest, and the uber-romantic title song, are virtually flawless examples of pop musical sorcery.
And this current version has been well cast, with top tier performances from Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast. Luke Evans and Josh Gad make a comic duo as Gaston and LeFou. And there is an overflow of quality work done by the actors voicing the Beast’s household staff. After all, could anyone other than Emma Thompson lived up to Angela Lansbury’s 1991 Mrs.Potts?
And therein lies the original point. Thompson does very well. But did she surpass Lansbury? No, and the same applies to the movie as a whole. It simply can’t help but feel a bit unnecessary.
Despite the clever songs and handsome design, it really takes a long time for this live action to actually feel alive. The two big early numbers, “Belle” and “Gaston” lack the vitality generated by the animation in the original. It isn’t until “Be Our Guest” that director Bill Condon and choreographer Anthony Van Laast begin to seize control of the new product with some imaginative Busby Berkeley/Esther Williams imagery.
Once the movie gets down to its real core – the love story between two trapped souls – it begins to gather its momentum. That is due in large part to Watson and Stevens. In what could well have been the weakest part of a live-action treatment (after all, how can you keep the Beast from looking just a bit silly, and how can you suppress an occasional snicker at Belle’s warm glances at him?), the actors really shine. Stevens gives the Beast a genuine voice which grounds him in reality, and Watson, who begins the story as somewhat flighty and only barely more fascinating than the rest of the town, seems to grow more radiant and more resilient as the story moves on.
There are several good jokes scattered throughout. My favorite was a sight gag during a snowball fight. Gad’s LeFou, who got lots of attention in the run-up to the release because of his scarcely-veiled homosexuality, is funny throughout, and it is refreshing to note that his humor rarely plays upon that sexual orientation. He is funny because he is beholden to a royal jerk and LeFou uses humor to make his life understandable.
So the latest incarnation starts a bit slow and at a smidgeon over two hours, runs a little long. But it is generally pleasant material. And yet the question remains. Was there really any reason to invest time and talent into something that was almost certainly destined to fall short of its progenitor?
I suppose the $170 million opening weekend answers that rather naïve question.