Not even including Beastly or The Beautician and the Beast, there have been no fewer than nine film adaptations of Jeanne-Marie Leprince du Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast. Does the world need another?
Well, audiences were asked the same thing in the months leading up to Disney’s 1991 animated adaptation. “Why bother when you can’t top the 1946 version?” people asked. Less than a year later, Beauty and the Beast became the first animated movie to ever be nominated for Best Picture.
Now, Disney’s “Live Action Adaptations of Our Animated Classics” Division has delivered another version of the tale as old as time. People are again asking, “Why bother when you can’t top the 1991 version?” This time, they have a point.
If you’ve seen any Beauty and the Beast movie (but especially if you’ve seen the 1991 version), you know the entire plot already. A French girl from a small village with big dreams and a love of books trades her life for her father’s when he’s imprisoned by an angry, reclusive beast.
After being cut off from outside contact and being psychologically manipulated by the enchanted objects of the castle, she falls in love with him and — spoiler alert — they live happily ever after.
The story is the same this time around. Yet somehow, what was enchanting, disarming, and light-hearted when animated loses most of its enjoyment when brought to computer-assisted life by director Bill Condon and his cast of actors.
Emma Watson and Dan Stevens both give good individual performances but their lack of any chemistry is indicative of a larger problem: they’re acting in separate movies.
Condon’s adaptation is torn between paying tribute to the 1991 classic and topping that very film’s now-quaint progressiveness. It wants you to understand why feminism and LGBT rights are so important, while still asking you to ignore the film’s Stockholm syndrome elements and the occasional transphobic joke.
For better or for worse, this Beauty and the Beast feels more lived in than the 1991 version. The castle feels old rather than looking it, and the grime and dust covering everything brings a used realism to the proceedings.
But again, the patinas and worn dullness stand at odds with the movie’s necessity of using all the 1991 film’s songs. As brilliant as the collection of tunes is, they no longer fit a film that now also depicts death by the Black Plague.
Condon’s work as a stage director again takes away a bit of the magic. Many of the scenes are filmed flatly, without an eye for how a camera can best be used. It’s especially noticeable during scenes that achieved things animated movies couldn’t prior to 1991, like the ballroom dancing scene. Leaving the motion mostly to the actors instead of also the cameras contributes to the flat, sleepy look of the film, as if viewed not through a lens but a proscenium.
There’s a lot of good to Condon’s Beauty and the Beast. The characters of LeFou (Josh Gad) and Maurice (Kevin Kline) are wonderfully more complex now. The castle is much more intimidating. And the longer running time makes it feel less sudden when Belle goes from hating to loving the Beast (despite never calling him by name once during the movie).
But there are some things animation just does better. And while dark fairy tales have a definite place in live-action, this Beauty and the Beast is too PG to embrace its inherent darkness, wanting the best of both worlds.
This is a remake that, good as it is, adds little to the 1991 version and improves nothing. It may be a tale as old as time, but there’s nothing there that wasn’t there before.
3½ stars / 5
(Disagree with me? You’re not alone. For a second opinion, check out Lauren Luckett’s review here.)