Film, Reviews, Screen

Beauty and the Beast movie review: an ‘ever just the same’ remake

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Imagine if Disney announced a new live action remake of Fantasia and decided to keep Mickey Mouse in it. Try to envision how the photo-realistic CGI might look. Not a hand-drawn Mickey swanning around with a bucket-carrying broomstick, but an actual mouse the size of a person wearing a sorcerer’s costume and walking on its hind legs. Also a broomstick that has arms and hands and walks on its, er, hind straw.

Would this hybrid human-rodent and its transmogrified cleaning tool look just as magical in live action as they did in the 1940 classic? You wouldn’t bet your house on it; the mental image required to picture such a visualisation is weird and preposterous. If Big Mouse executives decided to give the project a go-ahead one question would linger at the core of it: why bother?

And so we have Disney’s revamped and bizarrely note-for-note Beauty and the Beast. Just as American filmmaker Gus van Sant treated Alfred Hitchcock’s sacred thriller Psycho as if it were a blueprint for his much maligned shot-by-shot 1998 remake, director Bill Condon (Mr Holmes, The Fifth Estate) relies on the beloved 1991 animated musical so greatly his production is more a transfer of formats than a feature film in its own right.


Condon’s movie may not have a giant rodent or personified straw broom, but there are comparable alternatives – from the titular bear/boar/buffalo-like creature to a range of magical household things, including singing and dancing furniture. There are times when it certainly looked weird and preposterous; in fact I came out of the cinema with a firm belief that talking teacups belong only in cartoons or acid trips.

A CGI-caked Dan Stevens as Beast must emote through what resembles a moosehead; surely an impossible task.

But the most vexing issue is that question about why one ought to bother. On this Condon and his screenwriters (Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos) seem to throw up their hands. The closing credits describe the film as a “Realisation directed by Bill Condon” – as if a) that is something we are accustomed to seeing in credits and b) we indeed go to the cinema to see something “realised”.

If the magic of the movies is about being transported into an illusionary alternative world, this feels like the spell reversed: taking something magical and finding a way to normalise it.

That is actually the challenge at the heart of the story (originally a fairytale by French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont) which is famously about the staff of a bewitched castle trying to break a curse and restore reality. Content-wise, Condon’s film is flabbier than its lean 84 minute predecessor, stretched out with a few scenes that either weren’t in the 1991 version, or were significantly shorter.

Everything around Emma Watson distracts us from her performance, which is focused and charming.

These include a slightly padded out party sequence, establishing the prince as a naughty boy before an enchantress-in-disguise gatecrashes his festivities and throws some horns on his head. I wonder what Baz Luhrmann or Paolo Sorrentino might have brought to the material: extra glitter and crane shots, for starters, and undoubtedly a much more fabulous beast.

Bookworm protagonist Belle (Emma Watson) is still a wonderful, tough, lionhearted character, rich in self-confidence and sass, with an inspiring disdain for the many injustices of a cruel patriarchal world. Everything around Emma Watson distracts us from her performance, which is focused and charming.

A CGI-caked Dan Stevens as Beast must emote through what vaguely resembles a digitally rendered moosehead; surely an impossible task. Everybody knows how the plot unfolds in the ‘tale as old as time’, which of course contains songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman – a great partnership that also gave us the music of Little Shop of Horrors and The Little Mermaid.

This time around there is a very small amount of new material (written by Menken and Tim Rice) but competing with the old tracks was always going to be tough. The new ones don’t hold a talking candle to the classics; a cynic might suggest this has something to do with qualifying for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Condon’s set pieces are old school, picture book, rococo, on-the-studio-lot style edifices, appealing in an artificial strong-wind-might-knock-them-over sort of way. Musical numbers are competently choreographed, but play out with a sense of déjà vu. Again the question can be asked: why are we watching this? What is the point?

Even taking into account Hollywood’s penchant for recycling stories, remakes charged to do something different from their most recent frame of reference are the rule and not the exception. The Big Mouse recently put forward satisfying reinventions of Pete’s Dragon and The Jungle Book; even Kenneth Branagh’s more classically framed 2015 take on Cinderella felt reasonably distinct.

Not so for Belle and Beast’s new outing. It is destined, if not to fade into obscurity, then certainly to fade in one way or another: the consequence of existing only in reference to something else. When the singing teapot arrives to say “just a little change, small to say the least” – man, this time around she wasn’t kidding. To borrow words from the same song: this new Beauty and the Beast is “ever just the same” .The music is still lovely, but the director’s approach feels defeatist.


One response to “Beauty and the Beast movie review: an ‘ever just the same’ remake

  1. Hmm… Still tempted to see this one, though will probably end up leaving it till it arrives on Netflix. Bill Condon has done some favorite films of mine, like Gods and Monsters and Mr. Holmes, but this doesn’t seem like his greatest moment…

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