Beauty and the Beast (2017)

2017’s Beauty and the Beast is the most difficult movie to draw a permanent conclusion to. The original 1991 animated classic is a near masterpiece, setting a new standard that seized the world and said, “Animation can be for kids and adults”. Critics and audiences reached that rare eye to eye agreement on the crowning achievement of the Disney Renaissance that went on to be the first animated feature to be nominated for the Oscar’s Best Picture category alongside JFK and Silence of the Lambs. Furthermore, it was the swan song of the man considered to be the driving force the cast and crew, Howard Ashman, who sadly passed away from complications of AIDS before completing his magnum opus. When the remake was announced, a certain quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was always popping in my head before and after the release, “You can’t repeat the past.” As the months rolled by, the casting was constantly impressing with fantasy alumni stemming from Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Even Chicago screenwriter and Dreamgirls director, Bill Condon was brought on board with original composer, Alan Menken. In some ways I was excited for this after The Jungle Book finally broke the mold of mediocrity connected to live-action Disney remakes. In other ways, I was really worried that the company was trying to capture lightning in a bottle again with a classic that didn’t need fixing. At this point there was no telling what this would lead to as the trailers dished out one nostalgic scene after another. What was its purpose? What did it have to prove other than erasing hand-drawn animation in more than one way? Can it do anything other than make Disney even more money to burn?

A young, spoiled prince (Dan Stevens) is visited by an old woman seeking shelter from the cold in exchange for a rose. Rejected for her ugly appearance, she punishes the heartless royalty by turning him into a hideous beast and placing a spell on the castle. The rose acts as a  hourglass for the beast’s one chance of redemption. If he can learn to love another and earn her love in return he, the castle and his servants will be reverted back to normal. Meanwhile in a small town, Belle (Emma Watson) and her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) are having a hard time fitting in a place that doesn’t share their life values (yet somehow different races co-exist in this time? Go figure). One such resident is former war captain, Gaston (Luke Evans) who seeks to marry/mold Belle into a trophy wife next to his trophy sidekick, LeFou (Josh Gad). When Maurice is taken prisoner by the Beast, Belle must survive the adventure that she wants outside of her provincial life.

Let’s acknowledge the good things before ripping everything else. The casting is mostly perfect, especially Luke Evans, Josh Gad and Kevin Kline. They’re vastly different from the original, but still work in their own way. Ian McKellen and Ewan McGregor are such naturals as Cogsworth and Lumiere that they could switch and nothing would change. Dan Stevens as the beast works hard with balancing both stilts and motion-capture yet is a great beast. And the subtle additions to the story that answers a few questions brought up from before add a level of ease. For example the castle is covered in snow during June as part of the spell and every time a petal falls part of the castle crumbles. Most memorably, the objects lose more humanity  which leads to one of the tear-jerking moments at the end. Design wise, the effects are decent in capturing a more realistic look. The dimly lit castle gives off a eerily, regal atmosphere from the dining hall to the west wing.  And lastly Allen Menken really pumps up the energy and music to his original songs and score. I dare even say Be Our Guest was just as good, maybe even better than before (Wouldn’t be surprised if this scene alone was what greenlit this remake). But much like the past remakes, pre Jungle Book, all the good ideas are weighed out by the bad ideas.

Now for the elephant in the room: Emma Watson as Belle. Talk about being so close yet so far. Out of all the characters in this musical, why is her voice so lobotomized? Was her music instructor Doctor Robotnik? Whatever the case, she’s the worst singer from the very first lyric. To add more salt to the wound, the majority of songs belong to her while talented vocalists like Audra McDonald are stuck playing a napping wardrobe. Watson will always be the perfect Hermione, but without a potent voice, she’s a pale imitation of Paige O’Hara. I’m not gonna act like Emma Stone was pitch perfect in La La Land, but she had emotional weight where every time she stretched her lungs. Here, Watson just goes through the motions with only half the charm. Speaking of charm, the romance, or lack there of has been sacrificed for more backstory, songs and padded material for the sake of being longer (don’t even get me started on the magical book), with only one scene showing any loyalty to the original book. Most of the new songs are out of place, but would work well in any other romance. As much as Watson and Stevens can hold their own, they have absolutely no chemistry together which is supposed to be the main focus. Belle has much more chemistry with everyone who isn’t the beast, especially her father. Heck, Cogsworth and Lumiere have more chemistry that I was half expecting them to have a romance. The backstory is welcome, but it feels more platonic than affectionate. Half of what’s said by the Beast in the original is given to the other characters, so there’s even less of a connection. And every other scene that left an impact in animation is now turned into a speed dating game so that we can get to the new material faster: Gaston and Belle, the castle prison, the west wing, the wolf attack, the asylum subplot. Apart from the songs, old and new, no time wants to be spent on soaking in the emotions. There’s a sever case of Psycho concerning this version where it feels that recreating the old material with new technology is enough to distinguish itself from the past. As for the “controversy” surrounding LeFou, it was completely overblown for free press and playing like an April Fools joke on both sides (Don’t have a cow Alabama, Russia or Kuwait). Sam and Frodo’s relationship was more controversial than this.

As much as I praised the effects for the realistic take in limited movement, the downside is it’s incredibly fake when trying to copy the cirque du soleil squash and stretch approach in 2D that chose stylization over realism. Same goes for the beast (no fault to Dan Steven) who’s design is also limited to the realistic build rather than Glen Keane’s combination of every northern carnivore in existence, further cementing the limitations of live-action compared to animation. In the original the beast would crawl on all fours and move more like an animal than a human being. Here the design is too human despite the millions of computer-generated fur. So the evolution of the character is less believable.

2017’s Beauty and the Beast is not the worst live-action remake when compared to Maleficent and the Alice duology. But it is 100 percent pointless. There are some great things that are brushed up on. Most of the cast is well chosen even when they can’t hold as long a note. Little additions to the story do answer some questions from before while being visually faithful. And for a returning composer, Alan Menken manages to outdo half of what he and his late co-worker energized. But when all is sung and done, the main attractions fail to bring a spark to their musical  notes or to each other despite the added layers to the point where the side characters are more interesting. The effects can get really uncanny by trying to be both ultra-realistic and have cartoony timing. Even in the best of times, there was always that question, “Why does this need to exist?” looming over my head when trying to judge this on its own merits. An impossible feat because every line and action is a shot-for-shot realistic mirror to the animated feature minus the charm and facial diversity of pen and paint. For all the rotten and fresh reception of the past live-action Disney remakes, they tried to do something different story wise so it would feel like a new experience. As a result this comes out as a mess, which is the worst compliment that a movie so great and so legendary could receive. This should’ve been a painless step down with someone like Bill Condon at the helm. Then again this is the director who attempted to bring a final spark to Bella and Edward’s dull honeymoon in the Twilight Breaking Dawn. He may be as knowledgeable as Seth MacFarlane in music, but when it comes to romance he’s tone deaf to ever replace Howard Ashman.

Note: To its credit, this 3D provides much more immersion and flair than the post-converted re-release of the original back in 2012.

Pros: most cast, direction, Alan Menken’s music, powerful songs, stunning, realistic designs

Cons: empty chemistry, Emma Watson’s singing, rushed, padded new material, nostalgic-crippled, uncanny visual execution

5.5/10

Special thanks to CellSpex’s Beauty and the Beast 2017 Review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AR53GLvHovo&t=1067s

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