It’s hard to improve upon near-perfection, so I understand that director Bill Condon had a monumental task ahead of him when it came to turning the 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast into a live-action picture. That being said, we’ve seen that it can be done with the recent successes of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. Unfortunately, Beauty and the Beast is the weakest of the studio’s recent live-action adaptations (I’m setting aside Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland since those are more re-imaginings than attempts to follow the plotlines of their original animated Disney movies). Everything is lavish and immaculately done when it comes to the costumes and production design, but overall, most of the additions, especially when it comes to new songs or tweaks to the plot, only end up slowing the movie down and detracting from its central love story. This new version of “A tale as old as time” will have you checking your watch.
If you’ve seen the 1991 movie, you pretty much know the story, and to his credit, Condon has made a few welcome alterations. The story begins showing that Beast (Dan Stevens) is a vain adult, not a child, who turned away the enchantress that turned him into a monstrous creature. The movie also explains that the enchantress’ spell made everyone forget that the castle existed, so that’s why the townsfolk don’t know about the giant magical castle in their midst. Additionally, in a callback to the original fairy tale, Maurice (Kevin Kline), is taken prisoner not for enjoying the hospitality of the castle, but for taking a rose from the garden. When his daughter Belle (Emma Watson) comes to rescue her father, she takes his place as Beast’s prisoner, and starts to awaken the dormant humanity in her tormented captor. Maurice makes his way back to the village to argue for help, and the wicked Gaston (Luke Evans) and his sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) agree to rescue Belle but only so that Gaston can try and marry her even though she refused his early proposal.
There are other detours along the way, largely involving Maurice as well as the addition of some new songs, but overall, they don’t add much to the movie. The 1991 film runs at a brisk 84 minutes. By comparison, the new movie is 129 minutes, and it feels it. While there are some stories where you stop and think, “Yes, I would like to spend more time with these characters and this world,” Condon invests his energy in the wrong places. Kevin Kline is a terrific actor, but I didn’t need to know more about Maurice. I didn’t need to know about how the enchantress functions in the present day. I didn’t need to know what happened to Belle’s mother. What I need in a love story between Belle and Beast is more investment in their relationship. To give you an idea about Condon’s priorities, their love story doesn’t really begin until about an hour into the movie.
Condon also shows himself to be a curious choice for a production that rests heavily on CGI. The man who brought us the creepy CGI baby from The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn is certainly skilled when it comes to making an opulent period piece, and all of the CGI servants look good, but Beast never works. You never forget for a second you’re looking at an animated face. It’s oddly both too stiff and overdone, completely unable to grasp a moment of normalcy. It’s either not expressive enough or it tries to do too much. It’s bad digital makeup, and it creates a barrier between the character and the audience.
It’s a shame that the central relationship doesn’t really work because there are flashes of brilliance surrounding it. Luke Evans is shockingly good as Gaston, and he sinks his teeth into the character’s cartoonish villainy without looking like he’s doing an impression of the original cartoon. Gad is absolutely hilarious, and feels like the best translation of the animated version to live-action. Trying to do Jesse Corti’s voice for the character would have been a mistake, and Gad wisely figures out how to make LeFou’s affection for Gaston believable, pathetic, and occasionally cutting. Kline also does a lot with Maurice’s added screen time, turning him from doddering inventor to protective father. Everyone in the cast seems to care deeply about what they’re making, but some actors are ultimately more successful at finding the balance between the new version and the animated original.
I wish Condon could have found that balance as well. Unfortunately, despite the expense of the production, he misses the mark on what his romantic musical needs the most: romance and good musical numbers. He comes up short on Belle and Beast because it takes so long to get their romance, and when we get there, Beast still doesn’t look good. Also, if you take the musical numbers piecemeal, even the ones that are good songs like “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” look shoddy as if Condon didn’t know how he wanted the choreography to look, and even when he did, he wasn’t sure how to capture it.
I adore the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, and I had high expectations for the live-action remake. That being said, this isn’t a matter of not living up to a classic original as much as there’s a lack of consideration for making sure that everything works. There’s no reason Beast’s CGI makeup should look so awful when you’ve got Disney footing the bill. There’s no reason the new songs shouldn’t be outstanding when you’ve got Alan Menken back to do the music. There’s no reason to add new things if those things don’t make the movie better overall. Condon didn’t have to stay slavishly devoted to the 1991 film, but most of alterations and changes don’t make his version feel fresh. They feel like they’re grasping for relevancy.