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Ever Just the Same, Never a Surprise

          Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast isn’t merely a classic of animation, but one of the all-time greats of cinema. It’s superbly-told story, rich and timeless characters, perfect music and songs, and breathtakingly beautiful animation which makes it one of the best looking movies, are among the reasons it holds the distinction of being the first animated film nominated for Best Picture. It’s arguably the reason there’s a Best Animated Film category now. And so it takes some bravery and a degree of hubris to remake it. 
          Going into this movie I wasn’t very confident, as this undertaking is almost a no-win scenario: change too much and it stands to diminish a beloved story, play it too safe and it’s just a pointless retread that takes no risks. But somewhere between those cases there must exist an ideal compromise that both honours the spirit and style of the original while also being unique on its own merits. This movie doesn’t find it.
          If you’ve seen the animated Beauty and the Beast, you’ve seen quite a lot of this one too. About half the film is shot-for-shot, line-for-line, beat-for-beat the same. Even in a few moments when it looks like the movie’s going to go down a different road for a character, it inevitably comes back to re-enactment from the 1991 film. The production design’s pretty good, if a bit too tidy at times. But the castle’s modelled on Versailles rather than the dark Gothic architecture of the original, which causes it to lose some of the mystery and gloom. As for the village, while I admire it’s an actual set, it’s not rustic enough to be believable as a country town.
          Emma Watson is certainly pretty enough for the role of Belle but she doesn’t play the character in any interesting way. Most of the time she’s just doing her best Paige O’Hara impression, but with an English accent and it leaves no impact. Kevin Kline as her father Maurice is good though, his character’s given a little more to work with and Kline really makes the best of what he’s given. The best of the live-action actors though is Luke Evans as Gaston who’s always been a comical villain, and Evans is clearly having a good time hamming it up. Josh Gad’s LeFou however is a bit of a disappointment. This is a part Gad seems almost born to play, but he takes a character who was a fun and funny henchman and turns him into a one-note comic relief. His defining characteristic is how hopelessly he’s infatuated with Gaston and it’s almost entirely played for laughs.
          Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson play Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts respectively and all do a decent job. I didn’t mind Lumiere’s design as much as I thought I would, though Mrs. Potts still looks a bit awkward. As for Beast -Dan Stevens is okay, but the character doesn’t work. In terms of his design, he’s not beastly enough, bearing only a couple tiny fangs and not a lot of fur making the theme of inner beauty resonate less. But the other problem is he’s motion-capture and it’s never enough that you feel he occupies the same space as Belle. Because of this, they don’t have a believable chemistry, which really is a necessity for a film that hinges on its’ romance. And it’s irritating because Beast could easily be rendered with practical effects, the right kind of make-up and prosthetics. Just look at what they did with Jean Marais in the 1946 version for instance. It also doesn’t help that Beast is written very blandly, and while sticking identically to so many other scenes, among what the film does cut are his early signs of development. It’s Lumiere who gives Belle her own room, not Beast, for example. Oh and by the way, Stanley Tucci, Audra MacDonald, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are all in this movie playing parts any extra could have, which is an insult to their talents.
          Every song from the Disney movie is replicated here and their visuals would be impressive if we hadn’t seen them before. “Gaston” and “The Mob Song” do a few different things that I like, but generally they tread the same water. The new songs are forgettable, save for “Evermore” which is okay. “Home” from the Broadway show makes an appearance, but only as incidental music. The singing itself is decent at best, though through the use of auto-tune it’s hard to determine who’s actually a legitimately good singer.
          The biggest problem with this film is the same issue the Cinderella remake had, in that it’s trying to apply logic to a fairy tale. Fairy tales have always relied on emotion more than logic to drive their stories, and when this movie attempts to explain the circumstances of its world, it takes you out of the experience. There’s a reason most fairy tales don’t have a specific setting or history. But this film makes no mistake when it takes place, or what the state of the world is. I’m not kidding at one point, the leads go to Paris! Much like how Cinderella tried to rectify the problems of the original, creating new ones in the process, this movie attempts to explain too much. Like how no one knew about the prince who once lived in a castle not too far away; there’s an explanation in this film but it’s laughably lazy and needless. Other additions just raise further questions and never mean anything by the films’ end. They’re pointless excursions there to lengthen the runtime. The filmmakers also seemed to feel a need to give Beast more of a backstory which actually incredibly hurts the character. I won’t spoil it, but it attributes his aggressive, selfish behaviour to someone else, completely nullifying his character arc and the reason for the viewer to relate to him. Of course this and a couple other new details add up to nothing, because the movie has to ultimately duplicate the original.
          I feel bad because director Bill Condon and the cast and crew put a lot of effort into this movie. But it just amounts to a pointless shadow of the original Disney classic. It doesn’t take any real risks like diminishing the songs or sticking closer to the centuries-old tale. What it feels like is a movie that’s arrogantly trying to be better than the original because it’s live-action, but not realizing or focusing on what made the original so great to begin with.

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