Friday, October 13, 2017

A Beast of a "Beauty"

It's a surreal experience watching Disney's live-action remake of "Beauty and the Beast." Of all their recent adaptations, it's the one that sticks closest to its animated source material by far, practically recreating it beat for beat. With an additional half hour of running time, the story is expanded a little, letting the romance breathe and giving more time to some minor characters, but otherwise don't expect any major deviations. And while Jon Favreau brought back two of the songs from the 1967 "Jungle Book" in his adaptation last year, the new "Beauty and the Beast" sees it fit to include every single number on the soundtrack, including the "Belle" reprise and "The Mob Song."

I expect that newcomers who haven't seen the 1991 "Beauty and the Beast" probably had a much better time with this new film than anyone familiar with the cartoon. Because the two versions are so similar, it's impossible to stop drawing comparisons between the them, and I'm sure that was intentional. Nostalgia was clearly a huge factor in the film being made in the first place. To Disney's credit, they did find a perfectly lovely, engaging Belle in Emma Watson (though her vocal performance is obviously heavily autotuned), and a total scene-stealer of a Gaston in Luke Evans. Everything else, however, became a game of seeing how director Bill Condon and his crew would tackle one familiar character, or scene, or song number after another. And in many cases, I'm sorry to say that the results are pretty lackluster.

The 2017 "Beauty and the Beast" suffers the same problem that many of the other Disney live-action adaptations do, which is that they are frequently overwhelmed by their production design and special effects. Everything looks terribly expensive, but the CGI animation simply cannot match the charm and expressiveness of the traditional 2D animation, especially where it comes to characters like the enchanted household objects and the all-important Beast. Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), Lumiere (Ewan MacGregor), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), and all the rest are back, with a showy, star-studded cast of familiar names to provide voices. But as hard as the animators try, the more photorealistic designs required to mesh with a live-action environment end up undercutting the performances. This is the most obvious in the new "Be Our Guest" number, a glittery but empty affair.

The Beast has his good moments, thankfully, with the help of Dan Stevens' performance. He can't match the physical presence and affecting pathos of the animated version, and has none of the leonine humor of Jean Marais, but this Beast is more articulate and more intelligent than his predecessors, and shows more signs of hidden depths. He also benefits from a longer second act where the Beast and Belle's romance is allowed to develop more gradually. One of the better additions here is that the Beast is given his own song number - though oddly it is not the popular "If I Can't Love Her" from the "Beauty and the Beast" stage musical. The handful of new songs are all originals, written by Alan Menken, and strong enough that none of them feel like obvious padding.

It's not enough, unfortunately, to make the 2017 "Beauty and the Beast" really feel like its own separate production apart from the other versions. The few changes to the plotting are promising, but too slight and underdeveloped to really add anything substantial to the story. The only performance I found memorable was Luke Evans.' In the end, it was only the odd line here, or a new gag there, or an unexpected cameo that managed to grab my attention every now and again. For most of the running time, the movie just felt like an awfully expensive facelift of the best of the Disney Renaissance cartoons. And that doesn't bode well for the many, many other adaptations that are currently in the Disney pipeline.

It can all be summed up by the lovely ballroom scene, where Emma Thompson did her best to deliver a new take on the film's title song. However, it only made me wish that I were listening to Angela Lansbury singing and watching the animated film. And any film that makes you wish that you were watching a different film has pretty well failed to do what it set out to.

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