Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, now a staggering 26 years old, was one of the films that saved the company. Following the success of The Little Mermaid, it helped bring the House of Mouse back from the brink of disaster. Coupled with Aladdin and The Lion King, it gave Disney back its animated crown. Now a quarter of a century later, director Bill Condon’s live-action remake might lead audiences to ponder if the last petal has fallen from their magic storytelling rose.
The tale is as old as time. Bookish Belle (Emma Watson) offers herself as a prisoner of exchange to the heartless Beast (Dan Stevens) in order to save her father (Kevin Kline). Locked in a castle filled with enchanted objects, Belle is the Beast’s last chance to win over the affections of another and break his curse. Complicating matters is blowhard Gaston (Luke Evans), a hunter who will have Belle at any cost.
As a fairly straightforward remake of the original animated classic, along with the expanded 1994 Broadway musical, Condon’s film necessarily invites comparison to the earlier versions from the beautiful opening shots. Indeed, most scenes – including the iconic songs “Belle” and “Be Our Guest” – are so similarly staged that its the cinematic equivalent of a cover band.
The positive cues the film lifts from the stage musical include repositioning Belle as a much stronger character, one who encourages other young girls to read and forthrightly proclaims “I am not a princess” (echoing a similar sentiment in last year’s Moana). Of the new songs, the Beast solo “For Evermore” (from original composer Alan Menken working with Tim Rice) is the strongest as a torch-bearing showstopper.
At the same time, the instance on a relentlessly dark sheen robs the film of some of its soul, including some Beastly scenes that will terrify the younger kids, along with a bloated backstory that features a grim fate for Belle’s mother. The most unfortunate side-effect is on the ‘animated’ objects, crafted as far too ‘real’ to be charming. Even Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen can only do so much with rigidly wrought metal. Mrs. Potts (voiced by Emma Thompson) is especially bland, with nothing more than a barely animated line on the side of china to give her something close to life.
The inevitable success of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST will ensure that Disney continues to reposition its own history for blockbuster fodder. Disney’s back-catalogue isn’t as deep as other studios, and continually mining its own history isn’t new, but it is (in the words of “Something There”) a “bit alarming.” While there is still some charm to this latest remake, most of it is second hand.