Never before has a movie remake so simultaneously affirmed its inspiration’s brilliance and also invalidated its own existence. Disney’s long-awaited live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast accomplishes that dual feat, serving as a reminder of the 1991 original’s standing as a Disney classic, and therefore rendering itself obsolete.
When the notion of this slavishly loyal live action reimagining started percolating, a common question was, simply, “why?” Bill Condon’s resulting film, decadent and elegantly adorned as it is, doesn’t offer a valid answer. I ponder its existence not because of content redundancy – to the contrary, tinkering with the mastery of the original film’s Oscar-winning musicality would be silly. What’s questionable is the laziness with which the filmmakers approach the real-world adaptation. Rather than transporting the flawless music of the 1991 film into a whimsical cinematic world, Condon and team merely replicate the former film’s basic staging and structure. Of course, the reason certain stories are animated is because the material just wouldn’t work in a real world setting, and for proof of that statement, look no further than this version of Beauty and the Beast, about as clunky and stilted a live-action recreation as one might imagine.
All of that might sound contradictory – sort of like I’m saying “it’s good they copied the original, but why did they have to copy the original so much?!” But the intrinsic content of the songs and the cinematic environment in which they’re presented are two different planes. The former is untouchable, but the latter must be molded to the format. Shackling this dense group of talented actors to a rigorous cartoon-based template renders them two-dimensional, even when projected in IMAX 3-D. The musical numbers, lavish and extravagant though they may be, are stilted by the artificiality of their soundstage presentation – and not the purposeful artificiality of a film like La La Land. Sequences are so tightly choreographed that there’s little room for spontaneous magic; there are a handful of instances where a song lyric dictates a specific action, but the characters stand frozen, waiting for the camera to swirl past them as planned. Such is the cost of integrating the human element into an animated world – even the flesh and blood feel synthetic.
The narrative suffers from the same affliction, a simple fairytale storyline padded with bonus sequences that double down on enchantment without actually enhancing our understanding of or empathy for the characters. This new Beauty and the Beast, scripted by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, runs 45 minutes longer than the 1991 film but somehow feels thinner by comparison. That’s the result of useless expository sequences that intend to offer a world-building backstory (and give some face time to the myriad of big-name stars who spend much of the film voicing anthropomorphized objects) but only restate the story’s basic setup – the titular beast was once a spoiled prince whose nastiness led to his monstrous curse – thus expanding the film’s outward bloat without actually digging any deeper.
Bill Condon’s presence automatically lends this film an air of sophistication, as it should. However, I wonder if he would’ve been better served in a writer/producer role, where he could’ve focused more directly on mounting the spectacle of the piece, as well as enhanced the depth of the characters. As for those characters, performances from Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, and Luke Evans struggle valiantly against the inertia of their thin and rigidly scripted representations (Josh Gad, as the now-much-talked-about LeFou, seems more at home in this environment). Voice performances from the likes of Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen and many others are lovely but limited by their very nature. The music is still wondrous, a master class in musical storytelling that is rightly left intact. It’s just unfortunate that everything surrounding it feels cursed into retrograde play-acting.