If a description is necessary of Disney’s 2017 live-action re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, let it be this: Moviemaking by committee. Not one frame of this two-hour and nine-minute hollow money grab smacks of personality or identity. Nor does it carry the weight of craft, charm or the unbridled joy found in either the 1991 animated version or the 1946 live-action film from Jean Cocteau. Instead, Beauty and the Beast opts for familiarity, redundancy and unnecessary indulgences that neither expand the world nor reveal uncovered truths.
Sticking close to both the ’91 animated telling and the ’94 Broadway musical that followed, Beauty and the Beast tells the tale of a selfish prince (Dan Stevens) who is bewitched by a sorceress (Hattie Morahan) to look as hideous on the outside as he is on the inside. To lift this curse — which has also entrapped, rather unkindly, his servants — he must open his heart to love and be loved in return. Lucky for the Beast, there is a poor provincial town just across the woods with a young girl named Belle (Emma Watson, bland) who dreams of life out there in the great wide somewhere.
Drawing these star-crossed lovers together is Belle’s father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), who, for rather foolish reasons, becomes a prisoner of the Beast. To free her father, Belle agrees to take his place. While Maurice returns to the village to get help, the servants of the castle release Belle from her tower and try to encourage Beast to open up to her. He does, she reciprocates and all’s well that ends well — after a little skirmish with the townsfolk and a particularly pushy brute (Luke Evans, the best thing in a bad movie).
Chances are the vast majority of Beauty and the Beast’s audience will know the story beat-by-beat, lyric-by-lyric before entering the theater and the writers (Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos) play into that. They tease out the songs and the major set pieces with annoying pregnant pauses; indulging in as much build-up as possible before finally allowing Lumière (Ewan McGregor doing a horrendous French accent) to launch into “Be Our Guest.”
Yes, all the songs from the movie are here. As are a few written for the Broadway musical and two new ones written specifically for the movie. Some are fairly decent — “The Mob Song” is the only number that seems to rouse up any energy — and some are downright dreadful. The great Audra McDonald is on hand as Belle’s wardrobe and unfortunately doesn’t sing every song on the soundtrack. It would have helped if she did.
It also would have helped if Emma Watson had something to react against. Beauty and the Beast is the latest in Disney’s attempts to updated and re-release their canon of animated classics as live-action movies, a term they should use loosely. With inanimate/animate characters like Lumière, Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellan, who is quite good), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Chip (Nathan Mack) and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) as her co-stars, Watson has little to go off of and meanders around the castle in a perpetual state of confusion. The Belle found in the ’46 version was downright terrified of her seven-foot man-beast captor who lived in a castle where the walls moved. The ’91 Belle, on the other hand, was positively enchanted by the prospect that the stories she’d only read about were coming to life before her very eyes. Either of those reactions seems plausible. Confusion? Not so much. A talking candelabra shouldn’t confuse you; it should either scare the shit out of you or make you jump for joy.
But it’s not the vocal performances, the music, the characterizations or even confused and uneven performances that make Beauty and the Beast a disappointment. It’s the lack of invention and imagination. Even the worse of the Disney animated movies still accomplished a remarkable task: they took a pile of drawings and made them move. And when they excelled, as they did with the ’91 Beauty and the Beast, those drawings moved us in ways that still has us reeling 25 years on. This Beauty and the Beast tries to cash in on the magic without capturing what was behind that fairy dust in the first place. That was the first mistake, the rest just followed suit.