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BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) review

March 20, 2017

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written by: Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos
produced by: David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman
directed by: Bill Condon
rating: PG (for some action violence, peril and frightening images)
runtime: 129 min.
U.S. release date: March 17, 2017

 

Disney’s product re-packaging of their animated features continues with “Beauty and the Beast”, another live-action update of familiar characters that is guaranteed to make a ton of cash, as proven by the billions made by such recent CGI-infested debacles like the “Alice in Wonderland” movies and last year’s “The Jungle Book“. Counting on nostalgia and an admiring devotion to their 1991 Oscar-winning feature to be the big draw here (and no doubt Harry Potter fans), the studio enlisted another Oscar-winner in director Bill Condon (“Chicago” and “Dreamgirls”) to helm this iteration of the fairy tale “as old as time” originally written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. As expected, the musical boasts lavish visuals with impressive costumes and tremendous production design, but there’s also a cold and lifeless quality present that leads one to once again question why Disney insists on continuing with this approach beyond the obvious monetary gain. 

In a quaint French village resides a young woman named Belle (Emma Watson) and her widowed father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), both of whom are looked down upon by their village for being a free-spirited book nerd who’d prefer to maintain her self-worth without the accompaniment of a husband and for being a crafty tinkerer/inventor, respectively. The small-minded community’s local bully, Gaston (Luke Evans), has his eye on Belle, determined to submit her into marital bliss, much to the chagrin of his loyal long-suffering sidekick Le Fou (Josh Gad), who quietly pines for the handsome brute. One day, Maurice gets lost in the woods en route to deliver a homemade concoction and next thing he knows he’s held hostage in an old castle against his will by a Beast (Dan Stevens) who lives alone except for a team of animated enchanted staff, such as former butler-turned- candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), maid-turned-feather duster, Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), majordomo-turned-mantel clock, Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), kitchen head-turned- teapot, Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), and her young teacup son, Chip (Nathan Mack).

 

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When Belle learns of her father’s capture, she offers to take his place and remain the Beast’s prisoner, which has an unexpected affect on the prince-turned-creature. As they spend time together, Belle begins to realize there is more to this angry and rude host than meets the eye. The Beast’s staff catch on that this girl could be the key to breaking a curse that has befallen the castle and its inhabitants for years, encouraging them to do anything within their power to get these two to fall in love. Meanwhile, a desperate Maurice pleads the villagers to help him rescue his daughter from the Beast, giving arrogant Gaston an opportunity to rouse the town and follow him to the castle, determined to be the hero that will defeat the Beast and sweep Belle off her feet.

You probably know the story well enough, maybe even better than I do. You’ve seen the Disney animated feature so many times that you know it by heart and can recite each line. The draw of this live-action adaptation is dependent on how invested you’ve been in the previous movie and there’s a level of curiosity to see just how faithful or different it will be from what you already know. Director Condon, along with screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wildflower”) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (who has a history of Direct-to-Video Disney sequels, as well as last year’s “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”), are aware of that and have added some length to the original runtime of 84 minutes.

This new version clocks in at 129 minutes and is filled out with new footage and new songs by award-winning composer Alan Menken (who  wrote the music for the songs in the original film with late lyricist Howard Ashman) and Tim Rice. The new footage expands on some world-building, patches up some plot holes and provides some extra screen time to select characters. There is also some unnecessary and confusing elements added as well, like a backstory for Belle (no one ever wondered what happened to her mother and it doesn’t add a new dimension to or understanding of her character ) told by way of a strange magical time-traveling book that Beast has in his position. As much as you want an adaptation or remake to feel different and new, you never want it to feel drawn out, nor do you need the new stuff to feel unnecessary.

 

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As for the new songs, they’re mostly enjoyable yet unmemorable and ultimately wind up feeling like filler. It’s nice to see actress/singer Audra McDonald as opera singer Madame de Garderobe (who eventually turns into a giant wardrobe, of course), a role which emphasizes her impressive singing voice. She kicks things off with a lavish opening number accompanied by a new character, Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci, greatly in need of a dental overhaul), who eventually turns into a harpsichord. Menken and Rice give a touching tune for Kline’s Maurice to croon in  “How Does a Moment Last Forever (Music Box)” and provide a bittersweet ballad for Stephen’s gravel-voiced Beast to lament with “Evermore”. Again, they’re good songs, but they feel more like detours that get in the way of the brisk, economic storyline that served the animated film so well. If it’s not broke and all that.

While Condon’s “Beauty and the Beast” is ambitious and features ornate costuming with detailed set designs, the art production feels lifeless and cold with an over-reliance on CGI. When the Beast impresses Belle with his vast library, the camera swirls around, but the shelves of books are blurry, in what feels like a visual effects rush job. That’s one quibble. There are problems with the CGI and character design of the Beast himself as well, with close-up shots revealing inconsistent work in his furry facial features as well as the character’s eyes coming across as fabricated (especially noticeable in IMAX). Even the creature’s lip movements seem off or out-of-sync. That’s a big problem if we’re to get on board with a character who shares the title. It’s hard to sit there and get invested in this Beast when these imperfections are obvious, not to mention wondering who or what Watson had to work with in her scenes with him. I assume it’s a motion-capture performance from Stevens – who is lost beneath what we see – and that’s unfortunate since it basically buries his talent under the hide of this creature. The Beast in this iteration made me appreciate what Vincent Cassel’s Beast looked like in last year’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” from French director Christophe Gans.

Speaking of Watson, the movie has to be carried by the actress and she portrays a dignified, compassionate and independent young woman just fine. She looks like the animated Belle come to life, so her casting is spot-on and from her opening number “Belle” it’s hard not to get immediately invested in her. Still, I wouldn’t say she disappears into the role the way a lesser-known actress would. As for her voice, I had absolutely no problem with it. People are mentioning Auto-Tune and maybe I just cannot pick up on that, not nearly as familiar with the effect as others, I suppose, because I didn’t pick up on any “assistance”. I felt Watson was just fine, unlike many others who feel she came up lacking, some even mentioned that they should’ve had her dubbed in by a professional. Sigh. I’m not a fan of that approach. I prefer the actor’s sing if the role causes them to do so, regardless of how they sound (yes, I’ll still defend Russell Crowe in “Les Miserables”), since it provides a more convincing performance for viewers.

 

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One character that everyone seems to like except me is Le Fou, played by the relentless ham Josh Gad. Forget the ridiculous controversy surrounding this buffoonish character, his sexual identity is merely hinted at throughout, with Gad’s mugging of the camera and opportunistic scenery-chewing overpowering any such nonsensical outrage.  My problems with Gaston has less to do with Evans, who is just fine, portrayal of the character and more to do with how he’s written. Gaston is supposed to be the town blowhard that everyone loves – girls want to be with him and guys want to be like him – and all the townspeople are supposed to chime in enthusiastically with Le Fou when he belts the idolizing tune “Gaston”. Yet, that’s not the case here. Everyone around Gaston (except for Le Fou, of course) seems to be apprehensive towards or afraid of him. He’s egotistically and is used to getting his way, sure, but he’s hardly the provincial town’s favorite son.

Surprisingly, the character I liked the most is Maurice, thanks to Kevin Kline, who is always so good. “French Kiss” already established that Kline can do a convincing (often hilarious) French accent and here he is basically the only one committing to one (in a movie that doesn’t care about French accents). He’s also one of the few actors in “Beauty and the Beast” who disappears into their role, since the rest of the cast are crying “acting” almost the entire time. I would’ve gladly sacrificed a few of these new songs to get more hang time with Maurice and Belle together.

Most of all, seeing this live-action “Beauty and the Beast” musical reminded me of the problems I have with this story, regardless of what studio or director is behind it. Let’s start with the curse that befalls young Prince Adam and his staff. He’s turned into a Beast because he’s spoiled, selfish and an all-around jerk – how is turning him into a Beast help? Because of his appearance, he covers his sadness and loneliness of his predicament with anger, rage and rudeness. Is this curse supposed to teach him anything? Also, for a Beast who just wants to be left alone, why hold Maurice – or anyone – hostage? Because of Beast’s disposition, I always found it hard to believe that Belle would fall for such a brute. She can find the good in him and they have a common love for books, but bottom line: he held her captive. Sure, she chose to switch places with her father, but it’s captivity nonetheless, which makes her love for the Beast problematic for me. I must be the only one, since everyone seems to be convinced via montage that this Beast is worth winning. Would the curse revert if she just said goodbye and wished him well at the end? I know I know – this is all a fairy tale fantasy. Why do I have to nitpick? Well, because I still have to buy into it all and comprehend what this story really communicates to those young impressionable minds. (For the record, I have issues with “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” as well). But such queries are overlooked, buried in CGI and swept away by extravagant song numbers, designed to entertain viewers, even as it dulls their senses and sensibilities.

Obviously, I don’t place the the 1991 “Beauty and the Beast” up high on a pedestal. In fact, I saw it for the first time in 2012, when it was re-released theatrically in 3D and I do believe I genuinely enjoyed it. This gloomy “Beauty and the Beast” has its moments, but not enough to stand on its own (two hooves and two feet) from under the groundbreaking shadow of what came before it. Sure, songs like “Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast” sound him, but it’s how the story is told here and what we’re looking at that’s the primary problem, not what we hear.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Allan permalink
    April 19, 2017 3:45 pm

    Thank you brother for putting more info out there on this wonderful movie! I have to make time to go see it again. The last time I went they had a bunch of kids in the theater and it was really annoying. I could hardly focus. They need to have an adult viewing and then a time for the small ones. Someone was telling me that I have a lot of growing up to do. I had to go into my fort and take some time cause that makes me so mad. Anyway looking forward to release on DVD so I can enjoy without the “disruptions”

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