The reviews for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST are in and the reactions are… mixed. While critics all agree that the film is stunning, there appears to be a consensus that there is in fact not “something there” as the classic song claimed. The disconnect may in fact actually lie in the art direction that is receiving all the praise.
Director Bill Condon took his lead from the 18th-century Rococo (also known as late-Baroque) art movement in France. The style during the reign of Louis XV was a reaction to his great-grandfather, Louis XIV’s, more structured and controlled Baroque period, which is fitting as Beauty and the Beast uses the past relationship between a father-and-son to set up the Beast’s emotional arc. Rococo art was defined by the similar ornate excess as the high Baroque period but was fluid, playful, and even witty at times.
This style is best seen in Beast’s castle. The exterior has moments of Tim Burton without the creepy factor but is primarily focused on its 18th-century roots. By contrast, Belle’s town is more than picturesque and is meant to feel like a classic movie musical but falters. As Belle walks through her hometown to the song of her own name, we hear energetic singing but watch mostly stone-faced performers, and Belle moves through the town without giving any sense of the layout. Typically a musical would use the town’s fountain to anchor the choreography for a big set piece. You’ve seen it before in classic made-for-TV projects like Once Upon a Brothers Grimm and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (starring Lesley Ann Warren or Brandy).
Rob Marshall did this successfully, moving around the tree in Into the Woods. Even with its use of special effects and grandiose sets built on a soundstage, as well as some real world environments, Marshall’s perspective of commenting on the nostalgic fairy tale musicals was still apparent through his shots and choreography. The closest Beauty and Beast comes to this is in the big tavern number “Gaston,” where the performances are vibrant and also the closest in tone to a direct adaptation of the animated film.
Into the Woods‘ darker palette, though, used to heighten the colors of the items the characters are hunting for, may have worked against the humor and tone of the film but would have been much more useful on a film like Beauty and the Beast. The vision of what Marshall was trying to do was clear, though, whereas Condon appears overwhelmed by too many ideas. The Rococo style of the 18th century is the most obvious, but others are apparent. There were the early stills of Emma Watson as Belle, using lighting and color schemes reminiscent of Vermeer’s work a century earlier.
There was also a moment in Maurice and Belle’s home where Maurice’s drawings are on display and make clear reference to Da Vinci’s sketches. So between nostalgic movie musicals (with occasionally stunted performances), CGI-filled Rococo castle that is more epic than classic, Vermeer Belle, and touches of Da Vinci, there is a lot happening in this film and Condon failed to filter it all into a cohesive work. While the town and castle worlds are meant to be distinctly contrasted, it ultimately feels like two different directors with two different goals.
Interestingly, it’s not only patterns from art history that the film follows. We all know the story, the Beast and Belle fall in love, the curse is broken and the happy couple rule a kingdom with (theoretically) kindness and intelligence. Which follows a weird parallel of Louis XVI, husband of Marie Antoinette, who would die at the guillotine after retaliation from the people of France for their excessive lifestyle.
Combining starkly different worlds doesn’t have to have these issues, either in art direction or story, as proven by Kenneth Branagh with Cinderella. Branagh’s vision for Cinderella was clear. He was setting the film in the late 19th century but through a lens of a classic Hollywood film from the 1940s or 50s.
No matter how over-the-top the story beats or costumes or setpiece may seem, there is not a shot in this film that does not support this artistic theme. Whether it’s Cate Blanchette’s classic 1940’s silhouettes or Cinderella sitting with her Prince under a gauzy glow, Branagh stuck to the visual style.
Kenneth Branagh had a lot more room to play, having a much simpler story to work with and a story that audiences expected to be updated for the times, which is part of why it has been updated in so many different versions. Beauty and the Beast has not been updated as often for the big screen and already has a fuller story than Disney’s Cinderella. The changes to the story appear to be to fill in where Honest Trailers would criticize, but otherwise, Condon focused his stamp on the visuals and came up short.