Beauty and the Beast review: a magnificent monster with no teeth

Emma Watson’s shy Belle meets Dan Stevens’s sophisticated Beast in a lavish, respectful update of the 1991 animated film – but what is the point?

Kate Stables

from our forthcoming May 2017 issue

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty and the Beast, the latest of the Disney animation-to-live-action ouroboros, has already had more than its fair share of rebirths. From a celebrated 1991 movie (the first animation to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar), to a long-life Broadway musical, then a buffed-up 2002 DVD reissue with a new song, it’s the gift that goes on giving.

So there’s a lot at stake for Bill Condon’s lavish, loving and very respectful new version. Particularly since, unlike The Jungle Book or Cinderella, the animated Beauty and the Beast was already a witty revisionist take on a centuries-old story.

It’s hard to do a remake without a rethink, along the lines of the clever vaudeville fantasies that Condon’s script injected into Chicago (2002). But this feels more like a glossy, beefed-up tribute, tweaked for inclusivity, than a fresh take on a much-loved piece. Lovers of the original film will find some sequences, such as the famous ballroom waltz scene, deftly recreated almost shot for shot, right down to Belle’s billowing yellow chiffon skirts. But everything, from the elaborate costumes to the wildly curlicued rococo sets, has been relentlessly ramped up. Ignoring Cogsworth the clock’s original advice about the Beast’s home – “If it’s not baroque, don’t fix it” – the castle is now a mirrored and gilded Versailles-on-steroids. Equally overdecorated are the castle servants, the enchanted objects whose elaborate CGI textures render them part character, part mise en scène. Far less expressive than their bubbly 2D predecessors, stiffly gilt candlestick Lumière (a valiantly boisterous Ewan McGregor) and porcelain Mrs Potts (Emma Thompson) must labour to be engaging rather than uncanny. Still, the servants’ various fond, interracial love affairs are a nice 21st-century touch from screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

This impulse to supersize everything has its most telling impact on the musical numbers. The lengthy village sequence for the bustling song Belle is stiff with forced vitality and achingly picturesque production design. To invigorate Be Our Guest, Condon’s whirling camerawork pays homage to Busby Berkeley, drenching the song in a blizzard of waltzing cakes, champagne fountains and fireworks. As pointlessly elaborate as a Vegas floor show, it completely obscures the song’s mix of playfulness and plangency.

In this riot of exuberance and outsize characterisation, Emma Watson’s reserved, naturalistic Belle sits a little oddly. The character’s bravery and pluck (she creates an escape rope of ballgowns at the Beast’s castle) will please today’s girl-power tweens. But Watson can’t muster the energy and dramatic power that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s lush musical numbers need, providing pleasant but colourless renditions of Belle and Something There.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Her suitors make a better fist of it, however. Luke Evans’s swaggering Gaston spoofs the character’s macho violence, hymned by his closeted buddy Le Fou (a frisky Josh Gad). Moody rather than monstrous, in a nod to Cocteau’s version, Dan Stevens’s thoughtful performance as the tortured Beast is rather good. His melancholy rendition of lost-love ballad Evermore is the only standout among the film’s forgettable trio of new songs.

Nevertheless, the story loses some potency with a beast this refined, bonding with Belle over Shakespeare and their shared ‘outsider’ status like high-school wallflowers. Traditionally, the Beauty and the Beast story gets its charge and its jeopardy from what Marina Warner called “the magnetism of the wild for the civilised”. Without a real brute to tame, this “tale as old as time” becomes pretty toothless.

 

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