The original Beauty and the Beast is often heralded as being the shining hero of Disney’s animated princess films. For years it has taught young girls that it’s cool to be interested in learning and that beauty is found beyond simply outward appearances. It is rather unfortunate, therefore, that its 2017 remake is, decidedly, skin deep.
So far Disney has had an impressive track record with their live action remakes of their classic animated films. Maleficent was directed well despite its relentless reimagining of the script, Cinderella brought new dimension to a well-known story, and the Jungle Book, as far as I’m concerned, was an unmitigated masterpiece. However, with each of these films garnering more and more success, Disney announced further and further amounts of properties to be reenvisioned on the big screen. With such films as Dumbo, Mulan, 101 Dalmatians, and even the previously untouchable Lion King getting the live action treatment, one couldn’t help but feel the sneaking suspicion that at some point these would stop being well-meaning ways to bring a beloved story to new audiences, and become heartless cash grabs. Well, unfortunately, that day came sooner rather than later. You can sit down at any moment in time and watch Beauty and the Beast and think to yourself,”hey, this is really competently directed film.” All the shots are nice, the sets are well-constructed, nobody is garishly bad at acting, the music feels pleasant, everything is done correctly. But at the very center of it all 2017’s Beauty and the Beast simply has no heart. This isn’t a film. It’s a piece of iconography.
Let us begin with the story. The script of this movie has absolutely no imagination whatsoever. Every scene is peppered with very simple dialogue that isn’t fun or really interesting at all. It’s the screenplay equivalent of tepid water. It’s not going to bother anyone, but it’s not going to cause anyone to jump for joy either. I first zeroed in on this problem at the beginning of the film when Belle goes to rescue her father from Beast’s castle, the lines that exist between her, her father, and The Beast were incredibly A/B, had no sense of urgency, came from no exigence, and had a very sluggish pace to them, despite being edited very quickly so as to keep children’s attention. As I was watching this I tried to figure out what the problem was, what could have led to this sort of unenthusiastic exchange, and one thought kept going through my mind, “This feels like a play.” Not that plays are boring, mind you, but it felt like a group of actors doing Romeo and Juliet not because they have a passion for Shakespeare, but because they needed to sell tickets and nobody came to see Spamalot. This screenplay didn’t do any legwork for itself. It simply just thought, well everyone knows beauty and the beast, so let’s just do exactly what we did the first time, and whatever motivations or emotion we need will simply be found in nostalgia and not in what we’re putting onscreen. And to be honest, it was really, really disheartening.
The movie opens with a song about Belle, referring to her as a “funny girl.” I, who haven’t seen the original in years, was wondering why she was so funny. They didn’t really explain it. At one moment, they say because she has her nose in a book. That’s it. I know that the whole point is that its okay for girls to be smart, I think that’s great, and by all means have a character that is both attractive and educated, but to say that she’s bizarre because she reads is really absurd unless you create a world in which that sort of behavior makes sense. I would get it if Belle lacked some sort of social behavior because of her excessive reading, if she were in general awkward, like Rapunzel for instance, or if there was some consequence of her constant reading, but Emma Watson’s Belle had absolutely nothing. Literally in the song where the townspeople sing about how weird she is, she’s walking around saying hello to people, being generally pleasant and accepted by others. So the song makes no sense. Belle has literally no character in this movie. This isn’t Emma Watson’s fault, as she did the best with what she could, but the filmmakers decided to write a story in which she is a reactionary character. all of her character traits are defined by how she interacts with others. Belle loves her dad. Belle doesn’t love Gaston. Belle thinks the Beast is okay. That’s it. There is no opportunity to get any sort of interest into her, and by accessory the movie, because, once again, the screenplay is relying on the fact that since you loved the original you’ll love this one, and doesn’t make any efforts to put absolutely anything in to the film to make it stand out as its own unique creation. In a word, it feels soulless.
There are aspects of this film to be praised. The production design is probably its greatest strength, with gorgeous costumes and lavish sets around every corner. If anything though it plays to its disadvantage, as the brash CGI stands out aggressively against that which exists in reality. The music is every bit as good as the original, save for their rendition of Gaston which had some awful audio mixing to the point where it was incredibly difficult to discern what they were actually singing. Alan Menken returned to do the music on this film, which was a saving grace, as both the musical numbers and the underscoring were all very pleasant to listen to. None of the acting was bad, as I said, but none of it really stood out. The closest thing to a breakout performance was Josh Gad as Le Fou, but even he probably won’t be remembered in a week’s time. The ancillary characters were fun to observe, despite their distracting digitalness, with Lumiere as the highlight and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts being endearing with all of her Emma Thompsonness. The best scene in the movie is the Be Our Guest scene, there is no question about it. It was surprisingly subdued, but remained opulent and actually, in my opinion, brought about something more than the original. Otherwise, I don’t really think there were many scenes that were magnificent enough to stand out. They’re never really boring, they just feel greatly uninspired. The pacing is really rough, with a stagnant first half and an almost montage-like second that amounts to a runtime that is about ten or fifteen minutes too long. I would like to reiterate that I do not believe this film to be bad. Everything about it is done correctly. People are in frame. The characters have the right names. The editing is fluid. But none of it is done with any imagination. You’ll probably be able to get some joy out of it if you are a fan of the original, but as you’re watching it, ask yourself this; “Is this actually as enchanting as I want it to be? Or just is the subliminal recreation of iconic imagery causing me to equate it to the original?” If Beauty and the Beast is anything, it is a collection of recognizable scenes threaded together with a very flimsy script and soulless performances both from the actors and the director. Let us hope the same fate does not befall its successors.
All images are from Beauty and the Beast, a Disney film.