From 1989 to 1999, Walt Disney Animation Studios achieved the “Disney Renaissance.” It was an age of rejuvenated creativity and risk-taking by the studio that built the House of Mouse, where the Disney aesthetic (read: storybook and princesses) married well to the Broadway formula introduced by theater talents like Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. And no movie shined brighter in Disney’s new glistening crown than the bejeweled Beauty and the Beast, a masterpiece of craft and artistry gifted in a glossy commercial package.
Beauty and the Beast will forever remain the only animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars before that category expanded to a possible 10 nominees, and it is one which its parent company still treasures above any of its other two-dimensional properties. It was Disney’s first animated movie to make the jump to actual Broadway theater, and now it receives the most lavish and reverential treatment of any of the studio’s recent indulgences in live-action remakes.
So in the broadest sense, this 2017 version inevitably succeeds at ushering audiences into vistas of sweeping memories from days gone by. For millennials, the nostalgia fuel will be especially strong because in addition to wistful recreations of the original 1991 film they saw as children, the added casting of Harry Potter’s Emma Watson guarantees a golden ride into the familiar. Sadly, all this grandeur and ambition amounts to little more than just that: a well-oiled ride into a rose-tinted landscape that is only missing the moving seats and 3D panoramas of Orlando’s most state of the art attractions. All of the original’s charm, pathos and, quizzically, palpable blood and tears that went into it, have been left out of the construction process.
The story of Beauty and the Beast, as if you didn’t know, involves a waifish, ahead of her time girl named Belle (Emma Watson) who wishes for more from her provincial life than the small minded social expectations placed on her by a tiny 18th century French village. Luckily, fate intervenes when her father (Kevin Kline) becomes the prisoner of a barbarous Beast (Dan Stevens), who would trap the old-timer forevermore inside of his lonely and enchanted castle.
That is until Belle makes a deal with Beast; she’ll trade her life for her father’s, which suits Beast fine since he is just as trapped as she by a curse that has left him to be a furry freak. For the spell to be broken, he needs to win a maiden’s heart before a magical rose loses its bloom—and his many equally cursed servants also have a vested interest in that outcome. Of course, there is another suitor waiting in the wings, Gaston (Luke Evans), a preening and vain alpha male who has the added wrinkle of being a war veteran in the 2017 film.
As expected, it more or less plays out how Disney last told the tale, albeit director Bill Condon and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos add a few modern touches, including a more assertive, self-determining Belle—she attempts to teach local girls in her village to read and immediately plans an escape from Beast’s castle—as well as a relatively fleshed out backstory for the Beast. Josh Gad’s Le Fou, the nasty little Gaston toady from the original film, even gets a sweet, well-meaning mini-arc.
From almost the very beginning frame, it’s clear that Beauty and the Beast is less a new film than an expensively mounted love letter to a previous cinematic great. While several other live-action Disney remakes have had similarly stilted qualities, this is particularly troubling following 2016’s triumphant reinvention of The Jungle Book by Jon Favreau. Favreau and his studio still made plenty of concessions to nostalgia and Disney iconography too, but that filmmaker nonetheless seemed allowed to offer a fresh and vividly singular spin on the material.
By contrast, Beauty and the Beast looks like the most overproduced parade to ever grace the Magic Kingdom. And at the heart of many of its issues is also one of its strongest publicity appeals: the casting of Emma Watson as Belle.
Ms. Watson obviously lives up to the English translation of her Belle character, appearing quite ravishing throughout the film; she also likewise transfers her own intellectual gifts to the character, allowing the newly resurrected Disney princess to enjoy some of the thoughtful poise that Watson displayed before the United Nations, where she became as much of a role model for young girls as her beloved Hermione persona. But as an actress, she continues to struggle in adult roles with getting out of her own head and conveying the emotional core that drives her characters, and Belle is ultimately a blandly flat creation in this Beauty and the Beast, wise and more proactive than her 1991 counterpart, but also far more blank and unknowable—she’s paradoxically less alive in the flesh.
As the film rests primarily on Watson’s shoulders, this can prove fatal during scenes where she must sell romance to a CG-created Beast. Stevens fares better as that critter, bringing a bit more humanity to his character’s boorish physicality than the last film, and, for the record, both actors have much better singing voices than those that carried the Oscar winning La La Land (albeit, comparing them to 1991’s Paige O’Hara and Robby Benson proves more problematic).
Among the supporting cast, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw do well as the anthropomorphic objects in Beast’s castle who befriend Belle, and Luke Evans and Josh Gad downright threaten to steal the whole movie as the film’s delightful antagonists. Frequently, Condon’s aesthetic too closely flirts with a level of camp that none of Disney’s better animated films touched, but the bromance between Gaston and Le Fou, with all the latent implications therein, hits the right note Condon is looking for.
Clearly, there are some attempts at breaking away from the classic Disney film. Yet even then they never stray quite far enough, and the choices often seem either arbitrary or a token attempt to include more from the original fairy tale—such as Belle’s father picking a rose from Beast’s garden. In the end, the few choices that do diverge mostly just highlight the challenges in translating material perfected for animation to live-action. Whereas the 1991 film can be gothic and operatic, the 2017 version is melodramatic and schmaltzy, harkening more to Joel Schumacher’s own misjudged harlequin film adaptation of Hal Prince’s eerie and effective Phantom of the Opera stage show than it does to the singsong cheerfulness of WDAS.
Be that as it may, for children and families, Beauty and the Beast will still undoubtedly hit a few right notes in theaters. As the film practically bludgeons the viewer with ‘90s nostalgia, even I couldn’t help but get a little sentimental with remembrances of first seeing Belle and Beast dance on a movie screen at the age of four, which is lovingly and effectively recreated here. The film also absolutely lands the “Be Our Guest” number as a multi-colored tidal wave that overwhelms the senses.
For scenes like those two, many will allow themselves to get swept away in Beauty and the Beast’s tide. Just know that there isn’t much depth below that shiny surface.
Beauty and the Beast is in the theaters on March 17. This review was originally published on March 3.