Throughout Disney’s remake of Beauty and the Beast, Emma Thompson performs the voice of Mrs. Potts in a not-particularly-good impression of Angela Lansbury, and you’re left to wonder why they didn’t just get Angela Lansbury to do the movie.
This, unfortunately, is Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast in a nutshell. A film so preoccupied with slavishly imitating its predecessor that it’s doomed to live in its shadow while the few new ideas that emerge over the course of its runtime feel almost alien. At times, it approaches Gus Van Sant’s Psycho levels of purposelessness – an attempt to reproduce the alchemical magic of perfect cinema as if it were a math formula.
And yet, Beauty and the Beast isn’t a bad movie, at least not exactly. For the first, perhaps, 20 minutes of the film, I was very worried it would be. After a brief prologue, the film opens with an off-tempo rendition of “Belle” sung by Emma Watson. I’ve heard people disparage Watson’s singing voice, but the truth is we never actually get to hear her sing. Whatever talent she does or does not possess is obfuscated by a thick layer of sonic manipulation; the result being a classical musical number performed with an overly processed voice that sounds like it was plucked from a Top 40 pop song.
But even beyond the unfortunate butchering of the song, the whole intention of it is lost on the film. “Belle” is a genius song, with lyrics by the incomparable Howard Ashman, that perfectly introduces Belle as a character, the world she lives in, the main thrust of the story and its broader themes all in a five minute musical number. So, naturally, the remake feels the need to restate, through dialogue, everything that the song already established. It’s not enough to have villagers singing about what a funny girl Belle is, we have to have a separate scene where she’s treated like a pariah for teaching a child to read.
Similarly, Gaston, an intentionally one-note character, is given scene after scene early in the film to remind us, again, that he’s a shallow, image-obsessed dimwit who desperately wants to marry Belle. It’s as if the movie doesn’t trust the audience to understand the archetype that is Gaston, except through constant repetition. Meanwhile all of poor LeFou’s dialogue could be replaced by the line, “Take heed: I am very gay,” and not be substantially different. I know, baby steps and all that, but somehow a character whose sole defining trait is his sexuality is not quite the win for representation that Disney wants to think it is.
Around the time the main action of the film moves to the Beast’s castle, however, the movie starts to settle into a rhythm. The staging and performances of “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” are both fun and distinct enough from their hand drawn counterparts to stand on their own, but more importantly, the central relationship between Belle and the Beast really works. That’s maybe faint praise because it’s the bare minimum this movie needed to get right, but that shouldn’t diminish the effectiveness of this romance. There’s great chemistry between Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, and their shift from antagonism to affection feels earned and sincere. In the context of the early scenes in the film, Emma Watson’s slightly-more modern take on Belle felt somewhat out of place, but when it’s played off Dan Stevens’ Beast it works like gangbusters.
And speaking of which, holy crap is Dan Stevens terrific as the Beast. The Beast is an incredibly complex and difficult character; one who needs to be both believably frightening as well as romantically sympathetic. It’s a performance that’s balanced on a razor’s edge, and if it leans too far to either side it can either blunt the impact of his transformation or render him irredeemable. A lot of sophomoric Hot Takes have been written about how Beauty and the Beast is a story of Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s not. It’s a story about a broken person realizing that he has the capacity to change and trying desperately to act on it. Dan Stevens, even obscured by digital makeup, is able to convey the profound sadness of the Beast; his deep self-loathing and the hope that this other person brings to his life. It’s a performance that is able to stand alongside the legendary work done by Glen Keane and Robby Benson – not by imitation, but by smart acting choices that are respectful and yet distinct from the original.
In fact, the most interesting parts of this film are the moments where the back stories of Belle and the Beast are explored. That’s not something I ever thought I wanted, but these scenes have a spark of originality to them that stand out in the context of this movie. The problem is that these ideas are never given the room they need to breathe, and ultimately feel like tangential diversions, ones that could be easily cut if they wanted to trim the running time below the two hour mark.
That’s the tragic story of Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast. The best of Disney’s recent spate remakes (The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon) lovingly incorporate the classic Disney iconography into a new and distinct story. Meanwhile, Cinderella hewed very close to the original, but used that as a framework to more deeply examine the story’s characters and explore different themes. While it’s worlds better than the disasters that were Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, Beauty and the Beast feels crippled by its own legacy. More often than not it’s a beat-for-beat remake of a movie that was already perfect, and the few times it ventures into new territory feel isolated and adrift from the main body of the film.
I’m the definition of someone who is too close to this (Disney’s original is one of my top five favorite films of all time), but I really wanted to give this movie the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately perfection just isn’t something that can be remade.