While a generation of kids gape at overwhelming CGI landscapes and a talking teacup, the generation before them wonder where all the magic went. An ostensibly live-action remake of the 1991 Disney animated classic, Beauty and the Beast hits all the notes of the original film slowly and without distinction. The new components of this version are great, but they’re jammed into an older model, one we’ve seen before, which can’t really use them to the best of their abilities. In other words, this 2017 Beauty and the Beast is a lumbering, sometimes charming fairy tale overburdened by expectation. The basic story of a small town girl finding and taming a mystically transformed prince holds up well, but all the bells and whistles added to this latest iteration detract as often as they enhance.
I don’t want to bury the lede, so let me be clear: Beauty and the Beast buries its leads—not just their relatively boring characters beneath a cavalcade of charming living furniture, but sometimes literally within the music. Belle (Emma Watson) and Beast (Dan Stevens) perform their roles well, but the song mixes are so spotty, so hit and miss, that if dialogue doesn’t happen to be the opening lines of a song, it’s unintelligible, swallowed by the film’s overwhelming melodic noise. Who knows whether it was truly John Casali’s sound mixing work or if director Bill Condon demanded busier and busier edits, but the film’s music is often as muddy as it is beautiful. This wouldn’t be a major problem, except that these songs are most of the film’s draw—children in the audience should be singing along, feeling the magic in every narrative-driving lyric. Instead, the assumption that audiences know the lyrics already damns half the songs to garbled (if catchy) cacophony.
The other half, however, is pure bliss. Introductory number “Belle (Little Town)” perfectly contrasts the sweeping introduction from Disney’s castle by looking and sounding like it came from a well-choreographed TV musical special. And yes, here that’s a plus. Cramming the screen with gesticulating townsfolk vying for their moment in the French sun makes a strong case for the song’s premise of a town both too small and too full. Then the plot picks up: Belle’s father and the town tinkerer, Maurice (Kevin Kline), is going to the market and will be back with a rose.
Maurice serves as our protagonist for almost the first half hour of the movie, accidentally wandering into Beast’s castle, discovering its magic and anthropomorphic accoutrements, failing to escape, coping with his daughter’s sacrifice—offering herself as prisoner in place of her dad—and eventually running back to town. He wrings every drop of acting juice from his part, giving us an overprotective, loving, encouraging father whose helplessness against a town that doesn’t believe his story is genuinely moving.
The Beast he speaks of is hard to look at. Despite this, Stevens gives an engaging performance, manipulating his elastic face and wild eyes into winks, smirks and terribly cold glowering gazes that, when the Beast is the only character on screen, work as well as some of the best CGI creature animation we’ve enjoyed on screen lately. It’s when he’s juxtaposed in medium shots with human characters that the uncanny valley’s creepiness rears its bison-horned head. Having the immediate touchstone of a human face in the same frame only makes us realize how inhuman and unreal the Beast is. We can see every single hair, we just refuse to believe that it’s hair. He’s too rubbery, too bright—he never seems dirty or imperfect enough to be tangible, even when compared to Belle’s eventual airbrushed hyper-perfection after she dons her yellow princess dress for the iconic ballroom dance.
Watson nails the role: smirking at times, lovelorn at others. She’s the kind of adorably naive, romantic dreamer that can still sell a little uppityness (“little town filled with little people”? Belle, this is why the townsfolk dislike you) that makes for a good coming-of-age heroine. As the film progresses you can understand the Beast’s appeal and their burgeoning relationship: Stevens emotes a gruff shyness to which Watson’s eyes light up in response—it’s exactly what she needs after putting up with would-be wooer Gaston’s (Luke Evans) narcissistic buffoonery for so long.
Though Evans is excellent; perhaps not the best singer of the cast, he inflects his voice with more character than any of the other actors do. A big, swaggering, pompadoured frat boy, Evans relishes lines about himself and blitzes through those that are less flattering. His physicality is refreshingly tongue-in-cheek compared to the intense earnestness in the film’s main love story and to the unbearable shit-eating zingers the script inflicts upon his yes-man sidekick Le Fou (Josh Gad). Gad sells the effeminate jokes as hard as he can, foiling Gaston’s intense manliness, but they’re outdated and out of place, more at home in an annoying ’00s Adam Sandler film than in a supposedly modern-minded reboot.
Ewan McGregor as Lumière, the hothead lothario cursed to be a golden candelabra, is the film’s most enjoyable voice performance among such big names as Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette). His outrageous French accent (it’s never not fun) and smirking energy drive the film with the kind of goofiness we need after we leave Kline’s engaging performance.
We get to spend quality time with these weird anarchic little implements—time that allows them to be funny without telling jokes and pitiable without weeping. Our main characters are so busy filling the center of sweeping visual spectacle (makeover scenes and CGI quick-zooms out from their faces to the Beast’s large castle grounds) that we yearn for the furniture’s banter. Sure, enchanted decor is intrinsically more interesting than the bookish Belle, but their characterization (comic and dramatic) is so much stronger here than with the protagonists that if we’re not watching them, the film crawls, allowing us ample time (45 extra minutes, to be exact) to compare the film with its predecessor.
Including an unnecessary backstory to the whereabouts of Belle’s mother bogs down the pace of an already ploddingly proud adaptation. The dance and dress sequences are so slow that it’s amazing the film takes yet another victory lap. The backstory’s addition doesn’t add depth to Belle and Beast’s relationship nor make us care more about Belle. When your movie’s opening song is about how everyone in town judges this oddball girl for being beautiful and well-read, we’re already on her side. You don’t have to add a superfluous character and twenty minutes of dreary discussion to woo us.
Despite some convoluted final action (not Twilight helmer Bill Condon’s directorial strong suit) and unbalanced music, Beauty and the Beast’s teary fairy tale ending survives it all thanks to the brief but colorful relationships we develop with the side characters. Even if they’re not the best they’ve ever been, the story’s quirks and core remain effective. There’s still beauty here to be found.
Director: Bill Condon
Writers: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor
Release Date: March 17, 2017