The Disney remakes of late have been treated more as events than movies; a chance for adults to relive their childhoods through modernized retreads of the studio’s animated classics. It should come as a shock to no one that “Beauty and the Beast” has joined the party, but let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to be its guest despite its redundancy? To consider this remake’s worth on its own would be futile, since it shamelessly dances in the shadow of the original. There’s roughly 45 minutes of narrative and musical padding for the sake of pleasing contemporary sensibilities; most of it does not work (at least not entirely), but the parts that do work are surprisingly sweet and worthy additions to this tale-as-old-as-time. Select performances and showy production design also bolster the heartwarming effect of what is more-or-less the same ol' bloated, CGI-laden Disney spectacle audiences have come to expect.
This is arguably most anticipated Disney resurrection of an American treasure since “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens,” and just like the 2015 hit, “Beauty and the Beast” is a little too reliant on what came before to guide its well-intentioned efforts. The only difference between the two is that “The Force Awakens” actually managed to be its own entity while still satisfying legions of viewers that hold its predecessors close to their hearts. About half of this film is very much the original brought into the three-dimensional world, but it does avoid replicating the animated version’s sumptuous visual language, which works both to its advantage and disadvantage. The most immediate example of this is the prologue, in which the narration is repeated almost verbatim, but the majority of it feels increasingly unnecessary as the film opts to present the events as they happen as opposed to the stained-glass window approach of the original. Like most of the film, it does less to set the tone than it does to cater to audience expectations.
For all its attempts to recapture the magic of the original, “Beauty and the Beast” finds its own voice through gorgeous production design. As a showcase for overly lavish sets, costumes and props, it’s a strong, handsomely mounted endeavor (not a bit of it scraggly or scrawny). There is considerable influence from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 imagining of the tale, but for the sake of mainstream appeal, director Bill Condon is forced to tone down the French-ness of it all. The Beast himself looks quite a bit like Cocteau’s take on the character, save for the CGI makeup, which Dan Stevens transcends with remarkable sincerity in his performance.
Gaudy as it is, the handmade wonders of the film make up for its lack of technical inspiration. Disney continues to present top-tier visual effects (which we have to blame for the extinction of hand-drawn animation in mainstream cinema), and while it’s hard not admire all the CGI heavy-lifting, it quickly becomes exhausting to look at. It’s flashy, but unremarkable. By the time “Be Our Guest” rolls around, you might be delighted by Ewan McGregor’s debonair French accent for Lumière, but you also might be dizzy from the extravagant amount of color and sheen that dances within the frame. I’ve never been so fatigued by rainbows since I saw “Enter the Void.”
Falling in line with the film’s overabundances is the additional music, which composer Alan Menken returned to score. Though beautifully written and realized on screen, they all pale in comparison to the tunes recognized across the world, nor do they really benefit the overall narrative. If anything, the new number titled “How Does a Moment Last Forever” is the least superfluous of them all, reinforcing a new and softly tragic backstory for Belle, which ultimately plays a part in the budding romance between her and the Beast. The added subplots and alterations, particularly Belle’s infatuation for her furry companion that forms out of a shared passion for literature and common upbringing rather than pity, could have worked just fine without their new musical counterparts.
It’s easy to get lost in cherry-picking the differences in this version and determining whether or not they work or if they are even needed, but focusing on all that will distract you from the real spectacle here, which is the cast. Emma Watson is clearly in love with playing Belle, cherishing every moment she has as everyone’s favorite bookworm (that is if you don’t count Hermione Granger). The castle’s “objectified” servants are all voiced with terrific aplomb. McGregor is, as I already mentioned, a charmer, while Sir Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson project immeasurable class as Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts, respectively. I challenge anyone not to get all teary-eyed once Thompson begins her achingly beautiful rendition of the title song.
Everyone here is quite good, but it is Luke Evans and Josh Gad who steal the show repeatedly. Evans’s Gaston is the best villain Disney has had in years, and arguably more memorable than Richard White’s iteration in the original. Those of you who are curious about Gad’s interpretation of LeFou as openly gay (as various news outlets have reported) have absolutely nothing to get worked up about. He remains closeted up until the very end, but the whole thing isn’t so much progressive as it is a mere joke. Even so, it’s surprising to see the comic relief offered an actual arc, and Gad plays him wonderfully.
Though it begins on a shaky note and continues to fall on mixed notes along the way, I was surprised to find that this “Beauty and the Beast” actually improved as it went along. Characterizations only go so deep and certain refrains feel familiar, but it all pays off in the end, thanks to a small dose of tragedy in the climactic moments. If this version proves anything, its that any attempt at recreating the third act of this timeless story will always result in both smiles and tears. It’s also further proof that any remake only increases one’s fondness for the original, but I wouldn’t mind coming back to this one at some point in the future.