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Beauty and the Beast

March 17, 2017
Beauty and the Beast

When Disney did their live-action version of Cinderella, I was disappointed that they didn’t do anything nearly so interesting with the story as they had with Maleficent. But in remaking their animated adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, they’ve barely even done anything new. With rare exceptions, this feels like a shot-for-shot live-action remake of the animated original, and I can’t see a single thing to recommend this version over that one.

I won’t bother with a recap; the general story is familiar enough, and most of the time it sticks to Linda Woolverton’s script from the animated version. In fact, it’s hard to believe that the movie has somehow grown from the original’s sleek 84 minute runtime to a bloated 129. Where did this extra half a movie come from? There are a handful of new scenes and songs, but much of it seems to come from overstuffing the existing sequences. Is that really enough to justify full writer credits for both Perks of Being a Wallflower‘s Stephen Chbosky and The Huntsman: Winter’s War‘s Evan Spiliotopoulos?

What do the new scenes add to the movie? Mostly, a little more on the back-story of the Beast (Dan Stevens), and Belle’s father (Kevin Kline), and even a bit more of Gaston (Luke Evans). Nothing, really, about Belle herself (Emma Watson), who remains as much of a non-character in her own story as ever, only there to justify the Beast’s redemption. Filling in more details about the men around her only heightens the fact that she’s so thinly drawn.

But with Disney throwing so much money into this thing, you’d at least hope it would look nice. Unfortunately, most of it is washed-out and dingy enough that it could fit in with Zack Snyder’s DC comics movies. I know that director Bill Condon chose to go this way to reflect the cursed world, and so he can lighten things in the few happier moments like the ballroom scene and the finale, but it means that the rest of the time we’re struggling to see through a muddy, underlit haze.

And this only gets worse when you add 3D into the mix. Not only does it further darken the image, it adds even more visual confusion. Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler — Peter Berg’s go-to guy for Patriots Day, Lone Survivor, and Battleship — routinely makes the classic mistake of mixing focus cues and stereography cues to indicate depth, leaving the eye confused and disoriented, especially when the camera moves faster than the post-production stereography can keep up with. The result is an even more jumbled mess; if it must be seen, see it in 2D.

To be fair, the animated version also pulled the same trick of using a darker color palette to make the brighter scenes pop out more. But the animators have much more flexibility to make the images comprehensible, especially when it comes to the staff-turned-housewares. The more “realistic” version of the Lumière (Ewan McGregor), for instance, has a face so tiny I couldn’t even pick it out for half the movie. The feather-duster maid Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) at least is carved into the shape of a dove, but if it’s animated to speak in any real way I couldn’t tell. Mrs. Potts and Chip (Emma Thompson and Nathan Mack) are almost cheating in having their faces painted directly on the porcelain, while Mme. de Garderobe and Cadenza (Audra McDonald and Stanley Tucci) are nearly incomprehensible to the extend they’re meant to be anthropomorphized furniture. Which leaves Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) the clock as the only one of these characters with an easily recognizable face, and even that can be a struggle. It would have been simpler and cheaper to just move the objects around by wires a la Bedknobs and Broomsticks and not bother animating them at all, for all the effect that actually makes it to the screen.

But wait: it may look terrible, but it also doesn’t sound great. None of the singing is flat-out bad, at least, but the sound mix when more than one person sings at a time — let alone the whole chorus — is nearly as muddy as the image. McDonald may be the standout talent, but her operatic soprano is jarring next to the straight-up Broadway style of the rest of Alan Menken’s score. McGregor is adequate, but sadly he’s no Jerry Orbach, and his attempt at a French accent is faintly ridiculous. The real let-down is Thompson, who can sing and can do a fair cockney — though it seems an odd choice for Mrs. Potts — but can’t really make both at once sound very good. And since she’s the one delivering the central “Beauty and the Beast” song, the ballroom scene loses the warm, smooth, mellifluous grandeur that Angela Lansbury gave it.

On the brighter side, Josh Gad is practically born to play Gaston’s sidekick, LeFou, and to play up the gay vibe that has always been recognized as part of the character. And Stevens delivers a soaring solo in the new song “Evermore”, which is the producers’ clear hope for a Best Original Song nomination.

Despite a few bright points, overall this is a mess. It was probably too much to hope that they’d try to address the whole toxic “if I love him enough he’ll stop getting angry and let me out of the house” angle, but they’ve done absolutely nothing new or interesting with the story at all. Smugly satisfied that they got it perfect the first time, Disney would rather set $160 million on fire as an sacrificial offering to their previous efforts.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: close, but barely passes.

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