BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
The competent production also rings with a message of inclusiveness that’s more relevant than ever.
Review by Matt Cummings
It can be said that Disney’s 1991 animated classic BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is as much a seminal moment in many a child’s life as it is a history lesson about the studio that created it. Having languished for nearly 20 years behind titles like THE RESCUERS, THE BLACK CAULDRON, and OLIVER AND COMPANY, Disney made a strong comeback with 1989’s THE LITTLE MERMAID. But no one was sure whether that was a flash in the pan or a sign of better times (can you name the two duds that followed MERMAID). BEAUTY AND THE BEAST cemented Disney’s return, reinventing the studio nearly overnight by wrapping many of the film’s elements into its DNA. And while the live-action version of the classic offers little in the way of anything new, its message of hope and inclusiveness emerge as absolutely necessary in these turbulent times.
The young girl Belle (Emily Watson) lives in a local French town, where everyone is merely satisfied in their stolid roles. Not Belle: her clock maker father Maurice (Kevin Kline) has made Belle a well-read and fiercely independent woman, but the death of her mother years ago is still a sore subject with Maurice. Meanwhile, the hansom rouge Gaston (Luke Evans) is ensconced in trying to win Belle’s hand, as other jealous candidates and Gaston’s gay mate LeFou (Josh Gad) look on. To Belle, the town’s backward ways demand her immediate exit. She soon gets that chance, after Maurice is imprisoned by The Beast (Dan Stevens), who was once a prince of the realm and is now horribly disfigured. His servants too have been transformed into objects of around his mansion, such as the candelabra Lumière (Ewan McGregor), the clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), and teapot Mrs. Pott (Emma Thompson), while Belle’s town has had their memories erased by the curse. Beast must find love again before a single red rose loses all of its pedals, forever locking him and his help into the objects of Beast’s wealth, while Belle must wrestle with the notion that her life might never improve unless she abandons Maurice and the quaint life he has created for them.
There’s really nothing new about this version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, sans a few new musical numbers and a general retooling of the story. But it’s the stellar cast that wins the day, most of whom breathe new life into the inanimate objects they portray for most of the 129-minute runtime. In fact, so much of what Disney is today comes from the performances of the original (“Be Our Guest” has become synonymous with Disneyland), while seamlessly incorporating its elements of love and acceptance into every film and television program it now produces. That’s a mighty noble effort to undertake, and the revamped version sees Disney doubling down and mostly winning. Some of that is due to its exquisite production design, including Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran and Set Decorator Katie Spencer. Director Bill Condon brings his CHICAGO sensibilities to BEAST, pushing great performances from Watson, Evans, and Stevens. For Watson, she proves that Hermione wasn’t mere luck, largely delivering a solid performance as the tough-minded and independent Belle. She will most likely enjoy a long-lasting connection to her character, as her angelic voice and high energy are admittedly infectious.
It’s not foolish to want to compare these versions; after all, audiences will no doubt do the same once the lights come up. Taken on those terms, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST struggles in places to separate or outdo itself. Strangely enough, it’s the CGI which tends to fail us most often, vacillating between grand in the castle scenes and awful in its creation of The Beast. Considering all the photo-realistic wonder we got from THE JUNGLE BOOK, Beast looks…well…2010. He’s poorly animated, particularly in scenes when he’s walking, failing to move with any sense of grace or power. That might have been due to Stevens’s motion capture sessions, but luckily the Brit delivers in other ways, including his comedic interludes with Watson. He’s not quite the Beast I was looking for, and his emergence at the end sees him sporting an oddly-suited rockstar-like hairdo. I would also advise you not to see this in 3D, as the image arrives fairly dark and oftentimes a bit fuzzy. There are some moments when the 3D is supposed to accentuate the various splattering or shaking, but they’re not enough to justify spending the extra cash.
But for every one of these issues, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST also succeeds in the most important category of all, ringing with a message of inclusiveness that seems more relevant than ever. Regardless of what side of the fence you sit, we need a film like this to remind us that we are a multi-ethnic, multi-lifestyle nation, one who is wrestling with either bringing our Constitution to life or draping it once again in fear-mongering and hate. BEAST celebrates our diversity by merging this message with some very good musical numbers and old Hollywood-esque choreography. Wrapped in song and ready for the grand ball, we celebrate the multi-racial assembly as a reminder of who we can (and should) be. For that reason alone, it’s worth your time to check it out. It stands as a powerful reminder of the future that awaits us if we’re bold enough to stand for our principles, pitchforks and torches be damned.
Regardless if we needed another version of the classic, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a celebration of diversity, thumbing its nose at isolationist values to express a message of hope and peaceful coexistence. Performances are inspired, but the CGI vacillates between gorgeous and shoddy. It’s unlikely that parents will care about these issues, especially those who grew up with the original ringing through their childhood homes. They will find themselves re-singing these songs (thanks to the return of Composer Alan Menken) alongside their children, perhaps returning to the moment when they too were first whisked away to Belle’s world and when a venerated studio finally returned to greatness.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images and has a runtime of 119 minutes.