By Bob Garver
“Beauty and the Beast,” the Disney animated classic from 1991, holds a special place in my heart. It was the first movie I saw in its original run in theaters. The film kicked off a lifelong love of movies, and in that time I’ve seen a scant few that were on its level. But I’ve also seen many worse movies, including the new live-action “Beauty and the Beast.”
The script remains largely unchanged. Belle (Emma Watson) is a smart, sweet young woman who yearns to escape the simpletons of her village, especially the brutish Gaston (Luke Evans). Her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) gets lost on the way to the market and seeks shelter in a castle. The castle is home to the ferocious Beast (Dan Stevens), a handsome prince cursed to spend his life as a hideous monster until he can find true love. The Beast wants to keep Maurice as his prisoner, but allows Belle to take his place since it’s possible that she can break the spell. The Beast is coldhearted and Belle is upset about being his prisoner, so they’re unlikely to fall in love on their own. But they’re pushed along by the castle’s staff, who have been cursed to live as household objects until the Beast can find love. Ewan McGregor plays a candlestick, Ian McKellen is a clock, and Emma Thompson is a teapot, to name a few. Meanwhile, Maurice enlists the village to hunt down The Beast, and Gaston tries to take advantage of the situation to win Belle for himself.
When I say that the script remains largely unchanged, I don’t just mean the basic storyline. I mean that entire stretches are copied word-for-word from the animated version. I was able to mouth along with this movie without many problems, but not in that fun singalong way, out of boredom at how little this movie is willing to change. It does try to add a little bit: there’s a detour where Belle learns the truth about her long-lost mother, there’s a scene where Gaston tries to kill Maurice, there’s a mass death scene, a lot of dark stuff come to think of it. There’s also a new musical number for The Beast, a new character in a piano voiced by Stanley Tucci, and expanded roles for the enchantress who curses The Beast (Hattie Morahan) and LeFou (Josh Gad), Gaston’s sidekick. You remember LeFou, right? He’s Gaston’s ever-present companion who throws together a song-and-dance number on the spot about how much he admires his manly captain. In this version, he’s gay.
Among the things that don’t work about this movie is the way the characters look. There’s an effort to make the human characters resemble their animated counterparts, but there’s something about the makeup and musculature that doesn’t translate. They look like they’re on loan from one of those botched live-action Dr. Seuss movies from the early 2000’s. Then there are the characters that aren’t human, The Beast and the servants. The Beast is done well, with Stevens melding flawlessly with his CGI hair. But the servants are severely downgraded. They’re CGI, so technically they’re still animated, but they’re supposed to look more realistic, and the result is dead eyes on nearly-featureless faces. No doubt this will be a tremendous disappointment to those who remember the expressive little scamps from the animated version.
The 2017 “Beauty and the Beast” spends the whole time trying to catch up to a classic that is way out of its league. When it’s trying to be that film, I’m thinking about how inferior it is, and in the rare instance that it’s trying to be original, I’m thinking about how this is its big chance and it better not blow it and before I know it, the scene’s over. I suppose it’s nice to be reminded of how much I love the 1991 film, but I didn’t need to spend over two hours being reminded.
One and a Half Stars out of Five.
“Beauty and the Beast” is rated PG for some action violence, peril, and frightening images. Its running time is 129 minutes.
Contact Bob Garver at [email protected].