The Box Office:
Walt Disney's Beauty and the Beast hits theaters in North America (and elsewhere) on March 17, 2017. The film is the latest in one of the Mouse House’s most valuable would-be franchises. What started as a “wow” moment with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), which made $1.025 billion worldwide, thanks to a well-timed release date and spectacular director, concept and stars, has now morphed into a regular feature of the Disney playbook. And the only question is whether this $160 million-budgeted live action/CGI hybrid fantasy will become the fairest one of all.
For the record, it is entirely possible for me to argue that this Bill Condon-directed adaptation of the 1991 animated feature has a solid shot at becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year while swearing up-and-down that it doesn’t have to clear $1 billion to be considered a success. But as this is the first one of these live-action adaptations to retell a more contemporary Disney animated feature, we’re getting a comparatively unprecedented shot of nostalgia and multi-generational interest.
You’ve got adults who grew up with the Oscar-nominated toon, kids who will come to this either with fresh eyes and everyone in between. Oh, and toss in Emma Watson as the title character, just as the kids who grew up with Harry Potter are coming of age, and you have a financial concoction so perfect it borders on evil. Including the 2012 3D reissue and not accounting for inflation, the original toon has earned $216 million domestic and $424m worldwide. It will be fun to see how quickly that figure gets trounced by this new variation. Say what you will about Disney’s diabolical doings, but if it gets them the money to make the likes of Pete’s Dragon and Queen of Katwe, then be my guest!
Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is the first of these newfangled live-action fairy tale adaptations that feels motivated purely by financial whims. The live-action adaptation of the 1991 animated musical is less of a new interpretation of an old text than a straight remake of a popular movie purely because that previous film was popular. It is a celebrity cover band version of the animated movie, intended primarily to milk nostalgia and cross-generational interest. Yet it is burdened by length-padding digressions, miscasting, a choppy narratives and an emotional detachment that only highlights that icky subtexts within.
One of the core problems, believe it or not, is Emma Watson as the title character. Even with slight revisions to make Belle more of a master of her own destiny, this is still not the healthiest romance ever told. Unlike, say, Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, it is a romance that begins absent consent and without equal agency. And Watson can’t quite sell her own acceptance of this narrative. Like Jodie Foster in Anna and the King, Watson can’t quite dumb herself down to the level of buying it.
Belle is much more engaged when she’s fending off Gaston (Luke Evans) or conversing with her father (Kevin Kline). She looks unsure of how to react when she’s watching a bunch of silverware put on a dinner theater or falling for a relatively charmless Beast (Dan Stevens, with a great singing voice even if I kept thinking of Colm Wilkinson’s Jean Valjean). The film is much stronger, at least as surface-level entertainment, in the village sequences, where good actors are conversing with each other, as opposed to Beast’s castle where good actors do their best to bring visually displeasing CGI creations to life.
What works fine in animation–the various anthropomorphic dishes and tea cups singing and dancing–comes off as awkward in live-action. Much of the Beast’s castle is visually drab and ugly, in contrast to the bright and vibrant village sequences. That may be intentional, but since much of the film takes place in said location, it’s akin to a horror movie set in a single poorly-lit locale. Further muddying the waters is a series of digressions and complications that stretch the film to over two hours while offering little beyond undoing what was a fat-free and airtight screenplay of logical cause-and-effect.
We get a new subplot explaining, in detail, what happened to Belle’s mother and Gaston gets more scenes with Belle’s dad, which only serves to overly complicate Gaston’s third-act machinations. While more Kevin Kline is a good thing, the extraneous material and altered emphasis has two significant consequences. They make Gaston much more interesting than anyone else onscreen while pushing the Beast himself into a narrative corner until the film’s second half. Both sabotage what should be the movie’s core dramatic arc.
Luke Evans is pretty great as Gaston, and he is almost sympathetic until the story demands that he cross a clear moral line. Sure, he’s a take on the proverbial “nice guy,” but Evans imbues him with a certain level-headed charm and an awareness of societal injustices. That he’s totally okay with his best pal (Josh Gad) nursing an obvious crush on him makes him that much more endearing for the first half of the picture. Besides, he’s comparatively better than the abusive monster who locks women in cages.
This live-action version emphasizes one of the big problems with the animated film, namely that the Beast and his servants assume that that just because Belle is an attractive young girl that she might be “the one” to break their curse. They expect her to fall for him with just a token amount of effort. All due sympathy in regard to their cursed state, but every single action they take is self-serving. Beast saves Belle from the wolves not because he does a mitzvah but because it is in his interest for her to not die. Ditto the candlestick and the teapot and the feather duster all making Belle feel at home and trying to convince her that the abrasive, monstrous head of the household isn’t all that bad. It’s not quite gaslighting, but it’s close.
The Beast himself is largely absent in the film’s first half, until it is time for him to soften up and woo his would-be bride. Due to an arbitrary restructuring of certain plot points and dialogue exchanges (the library reveal is basically accidental), the Beast comes across as less sympathetic. This only highlights the fact that Beauty and the Beast is arguably something of a bodice-ripping Harlequin romance story squeezed into a G-rated bottle.
What works in the animated movie just doesn’t travel into the live-action realm. And that’s a problem considering Bill Condon’s core mission is to turn the animated feature into a live-action romantic fantasy. Unlike the previous live-action fairy tale adaptations, the ones I liked (Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella) and the ones I didn’t (Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland), this doesn’t even add anything to the mythology or bring anything new to the table.
It’s a deluge of good actors (including Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) trying their best in what amounts to a cover band of a popular album. The new version feels obligatory rather than narratively organic, with the core romance feeling unearned. The love story plays out merely because all parties know how the plot must go. All we can do is simply admire the visual elements, the pomp and circumstance and the new variations on iconic beats.
And, source material fidelity notwithstanding, I'd like to think we've advanced a bit beyond the whole “that mean creepy dude is really a sweetheart once you get to know him” trope. On one hand, that's the story. But it says something about our addiction to nostalgia that we keep having to tweak old stories so that they are slightly more palpable to modern audiences.
Since the Mouse House is going to make a fortune on this one, I think I can admit that I was never a huge fan of the 1991 film for much of the same reasons, namely the notion of rewarding the Beast for the initial act of kidnapping a young girl and being cruel to her. We can at least acknowledge something unsavory about the stories that are chosen as the next mega-bucks blockbuster.
If you argue that I'm overly harsh, it’s partly because I know Walt Disney can do better in this specific sandbox and I don’t feel the need to be too charitable to a movie that’s going to make a gazillion dollars anyway. My daughter liked it just fine, and I’m glad that I saw it in an environment with enough kids in the audience to observe their reactions. My critical opinion on this one is going to matter as much as my pan of Illumination’s Sing, which I made a point to see in that #SingSaturday national sneak preview, and I suppose that’s okay.
This new version accidentally accentuates the icky text at the core of the story while the plot alterations cause confusion and delay. If I was overly harsh on The Force Awakens partly because I feared it would unleash a deluge of glorified remake-quels, I also worry that the Mouse House will look at the success of this carbon copy revamp and choose to go in that direction instead of the likes of Pete’s Dragon and Cinderella. Nonetheless, Beauty and the Beast is among the lesser entries in Disney’s recent live-action fairy tale theater.