Disney set a monumental task for themselves when they decided to produce a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, one of the greatest animated films of all-time and arguably Disney’s own finest achievement. It’s akin to remaking Casablanca or The Godfather, trying to repiece and revisit an unquestionable masterpiece, and I’m unconvinced that Disney were aware of what it was that they were doing – or that they even cared.
Beauty and the Beast is mostly the same tale as before of a young girl in the 14th-century French countryside who gives herself in her father’s place after he’s taken captive by a hideous and hateful beast. The story hits most of the beats of the original with a few extra plot points added in, and likewise, the classic musical numbers are present along with a few new pieces written by the wonderful Alan Menken. The new pieces and story elements are functionally fine and do a little bit to flesh out the backstories of the characters, but ultimately they exist as a feeble attempt to illicit emotional response and pad the film’s runtime. Some elements, like an enchanted book that can transport the reader anywhere they want, are woefully underdeveloped and serve more as confusing distractions than anything.
The issue at the centre of the film is director Bill Condon, known for Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls, and, more recently, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and Part 2. He continually struggles to find a way to take the magic of the animated film and translate it to a live action production, resulting in a production that feels empty and stiff on the whole. Virtually every choice in the first hour of the film feels awkward and creates distance between the audience and the characters. The opening number finds Belle being introduced and singing from a wide shot where her face is barely visible, and the ensuing staging as the villagers sing while going about their daily business feels extremely wooden. In fact, nearly every song runs into this issue where a lack of liveliness in the choreography, editing, utility of props and environment, and more leaves them rigid and void of energy. It’s just hard to get into it when everyone on screen feels so unsure of themselves and restrained.
One of the key factors behind this, I believe, is that Condon’s idea of reverence for the original film is trying to stick reasonably close to its form, but his idea of what a live-action adaptation means is a sense of realism, proceeding without regard for the fact that everything in the first film was designed for animation. This is sometimes acknowledged by adjustments to lyrics that are easier to visualise without drawings, but for the most part it’s just flat and barely a shadow of the original. The “Gaston” number is a prime example, where creative and humourous visualisations from the animated film full of absurd feats of strength and skill become stiff hopping on tables, awkward attempts at jokes, and needless sweeping shots. That’s not to say all of it is poorly choreographed – every song has its moments. The film really hits its stride with the “Kill the Beast” number, which is bleeding with energy and great use of its environment. I also enjoyed the latter parts of “Be Our Guest,” which employs CGI to create some stunning pictures of spinning dishes and glasses. Of course, that’s the thing about that sequence – it was animated.
Speaking of animation, I found the film’s visual effects and especially animated character design to be severely lacking. That commitment by Condon to a weird sense of realism results in a Lumiere, Cogsworth, and others that have not so easily discernible and awkwardly formed faces, making it difficult to empathise and connect with them and again driving a wedge between the viewer and the film. I have no kind words at all for the rendering of the characters and indeed the titular beast himself as well, which sometimes have the quality of a bad DVD menu from the 2000s. It’s ugly, and its especially unfortunate to have visual effects this poor in a film that so heavily relies on them to tell its story.
The performances are par for the course. Emma Watson seems a good choice for Belle in spirit, but she lacks her vibrant demeanour in practice. Watson has a lot of trouble connecting and selling emotions and events on screen, but I figure this is due to 80% of her screen time being spent with nothing but CGI characters, a difficult sell for any actor. Her performance and indeed the film itself picks up a bit in the second half as Belle’s relationship with the beast blossoms, finally finding some genuine charm. I thought Luke Evans was superb for the most part as Gaston, capturing his unwitting narcissism perfectly. The note the film hits perfectly is the set design and the costumes, which are second to none. Every room and setting is gorgeous and populated with colourful people, but it’s just a shame that they couldn’t fill it with the right energy.
Beauty and the Beast isn’t terrible, but it feels as though Disney didn’t throw their best and brightest at it when it’s the project that probably deserved it the most. Ultimately, a lot of what made the original so mesmerising and memorable is lost in translation from animation to live action, and the result is, simply put, awkward. This unnecessary remake will be forgotten in time, and the original will live on as the paragon that it is. If anything, I’m filled with desire to revisit that version and remind myself how wonderful it really is. This is a story that was meant to be animated, full stop.