US Release Date: Friday, March 17, 2016
Following the under-appreciated Maleficent and the by-the-numbers Cinderella live-action remakes, I’ll admit to a certain ennui about this film, both the prospect of seeing it and its very existence. The animated version is so glorious, so resplendent in both its visuals and its music, that this seemed a profoundly unnecessary undertaking — especially as, unlike with Maleficent‘s Angelina Jolie-laden Wicked-ized version of Sleeping Beauty, we would most likely be seeing what amounted to a shot-for-shot reenactment of the original animated feature.
And as things commenced, that opinion didn’t change. Oh, we get a far more detailed account of the young prince (Dan Stevens) showing cruelty to an enchantress and his punishment for it, to spend eternity as a hairy, supposedly-hideous Beast. We even have a plot-hole filled, when the film explains just why and how everyone forgets about the prince and his whopping great castle a short ride from the nearest village. And Belle (Emma Watson) singing her opening number with the townsfolk, she thinking them so boring and backward and they pondering what a beautiful but so very odd girl she is — she reads, you guys — is fun and well-shot, but really not all that different from the animated version.
And so it goes on. Oh, the performances are striking, and the CGI really is a marvel, but on the whole, the film takes a very long while to justify its existence.
And then comes “Be Our Guest.”
A showstopper even in the animated version, here it is so exuberant as to be positively giddy in (semi-) live action–though I must admit to not really understanding while Ewan McGregor was cast as the very, very French Lumiere, his accent being very much of the Pepe Le Pew school. Still, the smile just would not leave my face as I watched in awe, and the rest of the original film’s highlights, like the we’re-falling-in-love montage of “There’s Something There,” brought on similar bouts of incessant grinning. Even our villain, the perfectly-cast Luke Evans as the brutish Gaston, had me mesmerized, and the retconning of his best-friend Le Fou (Josh Gad) into as admirer of a more romantic nature than the film previously suggested (though, come on, the guy did sing a song in fulsome praise of his buddy’s chin) is adorable. The addition of a line about how Gaston goes hunting and shoots animals in the back is almost chilling. He really is a bad buy, all the worse because he masks it all in a kind of righteous superiority.
On the other point of the love triangle that is this film, Dan Stevens’ Beast is hard to judge, because how much is him and how much is makeup and CGI? Nevertheless, I did come to care for the Beast, even despite his horrific treatment of Belle and her father (Kevin Kline) at the beginning of the film, and perhaps it was just the Stockholm Syndrome talking — of which, let’s face it, Belle is also a victim — but I feel the credit lies mostly in Stevens’ nuanced performance.
And what of our Belle? Well, Emma Watson is auto-tuned to hell, but sweet-voiced and spirited for all that. She’s just great, isn’t she? So lovely. So utterly charming. So very Disney Princess.
And that’s still what this movie is, of course. A Disney Princess film of the Happy Ever After school, albeit a slight update on the original (Le Fou is gay! The Beast’s dad was cruel! We find out what happened to Belle’s mom!), and it must be said that in live action, the “beauty is only skin deep” trope falls apart even faster when the not-so-beautiful one is a wealthy prince with his own magical castle. It’s a little too reminiscent of rich and powerful men everywhere getting what they want because of what they have, and if one stops to think about it too hard, one has to wonder about the message it sends to young girls. It’s okay to feel you’re better than other people because you read. If you ever get abducted by a guy, it’s just because he’s lonely and secretly likes you. Servants LOVE to serve, in fact, it’s all they live for. Other such nonsense.
But, those musical numbers! By the time all is resolved and our happy couple are twirling about a 17th-Century ballroom with villagers restored to humanity, it’s hard not to be all misty-eyed.
A tale as old as time, indeed.
Fairy Tale Musical | PG | 129 minutes
Based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Based on Beauty and the Beast (1991) by Linda Woolverton
Written by Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Directed by Bill Condon
Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson