Reviewing and previewing Disney’s production schedule shows that they have been sorting through their back catalogues for a while now, and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. “The House That Mickey Built” has always been known for its animation, and truly, some of the greatest animated features of all-time have been Disney films. There’s a certain magic and sense of grandeur that animation can bring that live-action has traditionally lacked, due to the practical limitations with special effects. This new digital age of filmmaking allows for sights to be realized that were never possibly until now. Because of this (and audience’s fascination with nostalgia), no Disney animated classic is safe from a live-action reboot.
I’ve reviewed last year’s The Jungle Book for the site, but in the past few years, audiences got Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, and Maleficent (a reworking of Sleeping Beauty). If we go back even further, we see 101 Dalmatians and its sequel, so while live-action reboots are very trendy now, this all should have been expected. Dumbo, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid are coming soon, but what about the recently released Beauty and the Beast? The original 1991 animated musical was a great feat to itself, earning a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. Could it all be done well again for new generations to discover?
In a word, yes. It’s not without imperfections, as I’ll get into, but I highly enjoyed this version of Beauty and the Beast. The original animated film, even though it was “just a cartoon”, was a well crafted film in its own right. That Oscar nomination is still to this day noteworthy, as the story crafted was well done on top of that instantly classic soundtrack. There are many reasons that this story was Disney’s first stage production on Broadway, and many of those reasons make the film feel necessary on its own, even as it is altogether “playing it safe” in its execution.
Running 129 minutes in comparison to the 84 minutes of the 1991 original theatrical print, that extra 45 minutes is used effectively to address the forgivable plotholes in that original film, as well as fill out some of its previously unaddressed points, making the film a deeper take on it all. We understand the reasons the Beast becomes the Beast, the reasons for Maurice raising Belle alone, and the full lengths Gaston is willing to go to make Belle belong to him. While the implicit pinings of LeFou for Gaston and some of the controversies that accompanied it proved minimally distracting to me, ultimately, it was mostly a non-issue for me in all its vagueries, as I expect such things to only increase in the future in a more on-the-nose fashion. If anything, there are unnamed characters who grant more reason for the concerned Christians than LeFou. It all felt like coordinated controversy to stir interest, and judging by the box-office haul, I’d say it all worked well for Disney. Those controversies take away from the beautiful message of love beyond appearances and the lengths we go to for those we love. Back to the additional content, if the makers would have merely inflated the runtime with little positive effect, it would be a bad thing overall, but most of the “new content” feels very natural to it all.
I’ll address more of what I like, but first, I need to air out my deepest grievance, one that overshadowed much of the film for me. This film is as much a continuation of the stage production as it is of the animated feature, and as such, it brings the “tale as old as time” to life in a grander way than even the Broadway musical ever did. The production design is absolutely top-notch, so what could I possibly have a reason to complain about? Well, Belle (Emma Watson) is introduced in the film in a way that implied to me an ordering of filmmaking priority that just felt off. It’s not a singular instance either. In my mind, film can take viewers places that stage productions simply cannot. You can see faces in detail and journey with characters in an intimate way that is unique to the typically close vantage point of the camera. Our heroine is introduced in a shot that dwarfs her amongst the set she walks onto. While this is normal and unavoidable on stage, film can (and should) give that intimacy with the lead effectively and immediately. It’s not until later into her song that we even get a good look at her face. While I respect the obvious craftmanship of those involved with the production design, this scene set in my mind that the director, Bill Condon, was more impressed with showing off that aspect of his film than he was of highlighting its performances. While I never was fully sold on Watson’s performance, there are truly great ones here, many of which are done behind the guise of special effects; Dan Stevens is as perfect of an actor to play the Beast as anyone I could dream up, even if the special effects never quite allow the character to cross over into “realism”. Luke Evans makes Gaston more “real” and, by extension, more dangerous. Kevin Kline gives Maurice a greater warmth than before, at the expense of dampening the character’s eccentric nature. LeFou is given more pathos, but I found it to be of little effect to the film overall. Everyone in the Beast’s castle is given a deeper visual texture than animation allowed, and while I thought some of enchanted character design may have went a little too far in some of their qualities, everything fit naturally with the Baroque/rococo designs. While all of their voices feel human, some of the looks felt off. Handdrawn animation, obviously, had no problem in nailing their looks, but some character designs here allow ornateness to overshadow any anthropomorphic qualities that could have been accentuated.
I won’t retell the plot here, because I think most everyone already know it. In fact, I think the original screenwriters should have received credit here as well, as large portions of this film’s dialogue is directly lifted from the animated feature. There were a couple of cringeworthy lines in the film that took me out of it all, as they felt too self-referential for it all. Besides that, the extra story elements are told as much through new songs as they are through spoken word. Not all of them are as “classic” as the originals, but all are effective. Musically, the incorporation of the harpsichord was an incredible strength in the film, as both a sound and as a character. It further reinforced the overall feel of the film. The French Renaissance period was audascious and grand, and the film brings that out by infusing those expected elements with touches of magic. The ornate golds spring to life through special effect shots and grant Disney magic in a live-action sense that just seems to come naturally to animation. The classic songs, while never a reinterpretation, all have uniqueness that made them feel new again to me.
Overall, I don’t know yet if this will ever be able to “replace” the classic nature of the animated film, but that suggestion is a bit unfair to begin with. In my mind, this new version is a wonderful compliment to all that preceded it, fleshing out the story and connecting plotpoints that were overlooked before. While I don’t think Disney needs to remake their entire back catalogue, they could do a whole lot worse than the beauty of this film. It’s one I hope to revisit again soon, even if returning back to it won’t be as often as I have the original.