First, the good news: Beauty and the Beast is better than I expected it to be. I still don’t understand why Disney insists on recycling its most popular and beloved movies, but when the public repeatedly responds with box-office dollars it’s hard to argue this policy. Barnum had it right.
Director Bill Condon has created a visually extravagant movie and cast it well enough. Emma Watson is a likable Belle and Dan Stevens a convincing Beast. Luke Evans is ideal as the handsome but unheroic Gaston, and Kevin Kline is a joy to watch as Belle’s warm-hearted father. But the hurried introduction of live-action figures who are about to be transformed into household furnishings does no one any favors. A fleeting glimpse of Audra McDonald before she becomes a wardrobe is nothing more than a tease, and the same is true for Stanley Tucci, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who portray such now-familiar characters as Lumiere and Cogsworth. Their re-transformation at the end is just as unsatisfying.
As for the flack that has erupted over the comedy-relief sidekick LeFou, played by Josh Gad, I only wish he was funnier.
But the question of “why” never really goes away. The 1991 animated Disney feature is memorable, which makes it impossible to avoid comparing the two movies. In every single instance the live-action remake loses. The original ran a mere 87 minutes; why should this one require more than two hours to tell the same story? (The finale feels especially protracted.)
I have other quibbles, some more significant than others. There’s something out of whack when, in the very first scene, one has to strain to understand the lyrics the chorus is singing about Belle and her peculiar ways. (I saw this in the Disney studio theater where the sound is impeccable.) This song is crucial to the movie and its heroine. It should be—forgive me—clear as a bell.
The use of CGI is extensive, as you’d expect, but I didn’t find Mrs. Potts or the other anthropomorphized characters nearly as expressive or appealing as they were when they were drawn—in 2-D—by the Disney studio’s most gifted artists.
The screenplay is credited to Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, although it leans heavily on the ground-breaking 1991 scenario written by Linda Woolverton, who had much to do with changing the portrayal of Disney heroines forever. Lyricist Howard Ashman also had a major role in framing this interpretation of the classic tale. The best of his songs, written with Alan Menken, remain a pleasure to hear.
I’m sure that, like the other recent Disney retreads, this one will be a big hit. Parents are always looking for family-friendly entertainment for their kids, and young adults are curious to see how Emma Watson fares as Belle. (Answer: she’s adequate.) But families who really care should dig out their DVDs of the 1991 animated feature and have a special movie night at home. I think they’ll have a better time.