Disney’s live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast,” starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens as, well, the beauty and the beast, feeds on the nostalgia audiences have for the 1991 animated feature. As exciting as it might be to watch actors inhabit this beloved story, the film itself, directed by Bill Condon, seems profoundly confused, and confusing.
The fairy tale was written in 18th-century France, and the setting, culture and costumes are faithful to that period. But the film also has to wrangle a 1990s-era girl power heroine, as well as the all-inclusive identity politics of our current times. The result is a bit of a mess, lacking a unique cinematic identity and cohesive internal reality. But then again, this is a film that features a singing candelabra and a barking ottoman, so it’s best to check disbelief at the door.
In this update, “Beauty and the Beast” can’t decide between complete faithfulness to the original (the line readings are almost identical) and story innovation. Caught between the two impulses, any small divergences from familiarity feel peculiar and unnecessary. Consider this a public service announcement: The new song, “Evermore,” is the perfect bathroom break. Arriving nearly two-thirds of the way through the two-hour-plus film, the snooze-worthy tune does nothing for the already dragging story. Feel free to skip it.
Many of the story additions are unnecessary; they mostly have to do with character development, and no, this isn’t about LeFou (the much touted “gay” moment is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it punchline). There’s a short song from the young prince about his dying mother, meant to illustrate the wounded child inside the arrogant, selfish prince turned angry, introverted Beast. There’s a fantastical trip to Belle’s childhood hovel in Paris to color in her family backstory, but it only serves to underscore Disney’s persistent “dead mom” fixation. Of all the new elements, Emma Watson as Belle is delightfully winsome, and she carries the film with her intelligent charm.
There is something thrilling about watching this story come to life with real actors, which will be a pleasure for those adults who grew up with the animated film. But it may likely go over the heads of the kids in the audience.
The songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman remain stirring and cleverly written, particularly the opening number, “Belle.” Josh Gad’s LeFou brings a much needed levity with humorous asides added to the script, but Luke Evans strains to fill the formidable britches of Gaston. Was Joe Manganiello not available?
The gruff relationship between the feisty, smart Belle and the initially aggressive Beast hasn’t changed at all over the past 26 years, which may give some pause. The Beast is practically a bully, despite his bonding with Belle over books, and Stevens’ baby blues and half-hearted gestures toward his psychology don’t offset much. There’s a complicated jumble of gender politics at hand, and any attempt at modernizing the dynamic is more of a random piling on rather than a thoughtful incorporation.
Retreads of old movies powered by nostalgia and fond childhood memories are clearly popular cash cows for Hollywood. But are they worthy of our time? As “Beauty and the Beast” proves, without careful craft and consideration for the way these stories are told, the answer is tricky at best.