“Beauty and the Beast” Review: What it Lacks in Magic, It Makes Up For in its Message

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beauty-and-the-beast-bannerAll Images courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

In 1991, when Disney released their animated interpretation of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s French fairy tale, La Belle et la Bête — or as the non-French speaking audiences call it, Beauty and the Beast — it was the peak of the Mouse House’s awe-inspiring Golden Age of animation. The film became an instant classic and the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture. Most of all it made audience finally realize that animated film can actually be considered a legitimate form of filmmaking and not just viewed as “cartoons.”

Now, in over two decades later, Disney is attempting to start a different kind of Golden Age with their live-action interpretations of existing animated features. They made a strong start with the likes of Maleficent and Cinderella (we’ll just bypass Alice in Wonderland) and gained a lot of traction with the stunning retelling of The Jungle Book. Hoping to maintain that steam is the Bill Condon-directed live-action BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Based on the animated source material, the fantastical element of an enchanted castle with talking candelabras and clocks as well as a towering monstrous beast is an ambitious feat to bring to the big screen in a live-action spectacle. Luckily, with the advances in technology, all of this can be accomplished which is exciting for hardcore Disney-o-philes that have been waiting for this since the day they announced that Emma Watson would don Belle’s iconic golden dress and share an epically romantic dance with Dan Stevens’ Beast, while a teapot sang the titular song. Condon doesn’t hold back in creating an enchanting 18th Century France with powdered wigs, rosy cheeks, and countryside charm. Although a visual marvel, this ornate and opulent live-action interpretation of the Disney classic doesn’t capture the magic of the original animated feature. The talent puts their best foot forward to tell their version of the story, but there’s a certain sanitized and overly pristine quality to the film that makes it robotic at times taking away from the soul this movie could have had.

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The tale, as the song says, is old as time and focuses on Watson’s Belle, a young bright woman in a small village where she is seen as an outsider and weird because she is a free-thinker and she — GASP! — reads! Gaston (Luke Evans) doesn’t let any of her intelligence get in the way of trying to pressure her into marrying him. The more she says “Boy bye!” the harder he tries and with the help of his sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad), he is determined to make it happen no matter what.

When her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) sets off on a trip to the market, a pack of wolves attack him and he ends up taking a wrong turn into mysterious and omnious looking castle where he will later find out a recluse and cranky Beast resides. A little back story on Mr. Beast: he was once an arrogant and handsome Prince with major daddy issues until one day when an old beggar lady appeared on his doorstep asking for shelter from the storm and in return, she would give him a single rose. Being that jerk that he is, he turned her away. To his surprise, the woman ended up being a beautiful enchantress and he started to beg her for forgiveness — but she wasn’t having any of that. As a punishment for his cold-hearted cruelty, she put a spell on the castle and everyone who lived there, turning them into household objects. The only way to break the spell is to find the true meaning of love before the last petal of the magical rose falls because after that, everyone in that castle is s*** out of luck. The Beast remains a beast and the residents of the castle remain inanimate objects forever.

When the Beast catches Belle’s father trespassing, he keeps him as a prisoner. But when Belle finds out, she immediately goes to the enchanted castle sets a deal with the Beast and takes the place of her father as prisoner. Obviously, Belle isn’t too happy about being an eternal prisoner of the unpleasant Beast. But with the help of his friendly house staff which includes Lumière (Ewan McGregor), a candelabra; Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), a clock; Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), a teapot; Madame de Garderobe (Audra McDonald), a wardrobe; Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a feather duster; and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), a harpsichord, Belle goes full Stockholm syndrome and begins to feel at home and develops an unlikely relationship with Beast.

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Condon does very well with big production numbers and scenes where it’s lively, action-packed, full of energy and has the entire company involved and we have seen this in his past films like Dreamgirls, Chicago, and even the Twilight film he helmed. The same can be said for Beauty and the Beast. The opening number where Watson strolls through the village while singing “Belle,” is a lively introduction to the movie’s heroine, villain, and it ends with the entire village singing in grand unison, giving you the same excited feeling you felt when you saw Catherine Zeta-Jones sing “All That Jazz” or when Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson, and Anika Noni Rose sang “Move” as the Dreamettes. The feeling and intent is alive and well (with both old and new original songs that fold in very well), but the problem is that Watson is not the center of that energy — and she should be.

One of the primary flaws of the film is that it is apparent that they taught actors how to sing. With the exception of the Queen Audra MacDonald and Josh Gad, the majority of the cast hasn’t done many musicals. When the two main players of the film do not have the vocal presence to bring life to the characters in a musical, things tend to fall flat. Don’t get me wrong — Watson and Stevens have their moments. Watson has a glorious Sound of Music moment during the “Belle (Reprise)” when she runs to the hills while Stevens gives a moody song of heartbreak when he realizes he can’t be with Belle. Other than that, the two only fill a little under 3/4 of this movie’s Magic Tank.

Beauty and the Beast is a musical so a strong sense of musicality is needed in order to push the story forward and convince the audience that random outbursts of singing are normal in this world. This can be an arduous task especially with actors who are singing on screen for the first time. Watson and Stevens try their best, but it wasn’t impressive Anne-Hathaway-in-Les Miserables groundbreaking. It pains me to say that because they are both fantastic actors, it’s just that their performances weren’t strong and dazzling enough to make this live-action adaptation a spectacular home run.

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What Watson and Stevens lacked in their musicality was made up from their supporting cast — particularly Evans and Gad. Evans is the MVP of the movie, stealing scenes with his swaggering charm and impressing us with his vocal chops. As for Gad, many underestimate his talent and his performance as LeFou — gay or not — is equal parts hilarious, absurd, and delightful. Gad is as if the animated LeFou literally came to life off the animation cell. And I will be so bold to say that, at times, the performances from the household objects held more emotional weight than any of the human characters. There were moments when there was more charm and personality coming out of McGregor’s Lumiere and McKellan’s Cogsworth than anything from Belle or the Beast, the latter presenting another problem.

There was an awkward inconsistency to the CG-rendered Beast, at times it seemed convincing and at other times it was very much an animated work, which takes you out of Condon’s universe. The creature lacks a level of soul that connects and leaves the audience unsatisfied. The lack of emotional connection is also testimony to the chemistry between Watson and Stevens which, like the CG-Beast, is inconsistent and lacked the deep-seated nuance we felt in the animated version. On a brighter note, this version looks better than Ron Perlman’s Beast from the Beauty and the Beast TV series from the late ’80s.

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Beauty and the Beast marks the third Disney iteration of the classic tale, the first being the animated feature and the second being the Broadway musical. In the recent press conference for the film, McDonald pointed out how all of them are different mediums and that this live-action interpretation was their opportunity to tell the story. Calling Condon’s movie a remake wouldn’t be fair because this is the same story, but told through a different avenue. The script, written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, adds on to the existing property, giving it more embellishment and panache.

On the surface of its 18th-centry French gold-trimmed flowery extravagance, Beauty and the Beast could be seen as “spectacle over substance,” but don’t get it twisted — there is a deeper meaning that can get eclipsed by the ornate fanciness and the movie does a good of  putting it front and center. McDonald points out that it was important that Watson was cast as Belle because of her position as a strong woman who is independent, free-thinking and a feminist who does what she does for the greater good. The Tony Award-winning actress adds that Watson has influenced her own daughters to opt for donations to charity in lieu of birthday gifts. That said, Watson’s involvement in the film speaks greater volumes than the film itself. Sure, she’s not a Broadway superstar when it comes to the music of the film, but it’s her position as “Emma Watson” that gives this film an unsaid message of female empowerment.

Watson, who has been very public about being a feminist for human rights, mirrors the attitude of Belle, a small-town girl who doesn’t conform to dated female standards and wants much more than the “provincial life” that she is expected to live. The message is clear in the movie, but not spoken and the fact that Disney let Watson use Beauty and the Beast as a platform to spread this message is brilliant. Watson stated at the press conference how much of an influence Belle was on her and how she wanted to champion her spirit and energy — and she did. Her performance of Belle goes along with Disney’s continuous unspoken campaign of breaking the “Princess” mold as we seen in movies like Frozen and Moana.

The message goes beyond female empowerment and reaches other marginalized communities specifically with the LGBT community. The reveal of LeFou being the first openly gay Disney character has caused a media frenzy and an uproar amongst conservative communities. An Alabama theater refuses to play the movie and Russia is set to ban it from their theaters (no surprise there). But in response to LeFou’s sexuality, Condon said, “I talked before about how we translate this into live-action. That means building out the characters. It’s also a translation to 2017, you know?” He points out that the movie has always been about looking closer, going deeper, accepting people for who they really are.

He adds, “And in a very Disney way, we are including everybody. I think this is for everybody, and on the screen we’ll see everybody. And that was important to me.”

Despite the movie’s drawbacks, the movie is filled with heart, sense of self, and a strong moral compass — something we can all use right now. Condon, Watson, Stevens and the rest of the cast and crew of paint a wondrous portrait of Beauty and the Beast with a new energy that we haven’t seen before. Once you detach yourself from the version you’re used to, you’ll fall under the spell of this enchanting reprisal of the Disney classic.

Rated: PG
Running time: 129 minutes

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Dino watches too much TV, enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.
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