Between Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon, Disney’s had pretty good luck so far doing live-action remakes of their animated classics. Pete’s Dragon is sweet, The Jungle Book is visually stunning, and Cinderella gives us Cate Blanchett swanning around in an assortment of retro outfits. Really, what more do you want?
Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and Breaking Dawn Part Michael Sheen Giggle) takes on this set of movies’ biggest challenge yet with a reimagining of Beauty and the Beast. Unlike Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon, the 1991 Beauty and the Beast is a movie that a good chunk of the remake’s potential audience grew up with. I saw those other three, but I can quote Beauty and the Beast off the top of my head. I have strong opinions about its timeline and the fuckability of its Prince. Beauty in the Beast is important to me, and to a lot of people in my age group, in a personal way that the other movies Disney has taken their live-action wand to just… aren’t.
You can tell that Disney knows this is one property they shouldn’t fuck up. The way you can tell this is that the new movie exhibits a borderline slavishness to its predecessor that ends up shooting it in the foot.
Apologies to everyone who wants a more casual “Jesus Christ, Rebecca, just tell me whether the movie’s good without doing a deep dive into Disney nerd territory” review. I yam who I yam and that’s all that I yam. Also, spoilers for changes this movie makes.
There are scenes that are shot-for-shot what they were in the animated movie. Dialogue that’s the same, obviously. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella made big changes to the animated Cinderella plot, to its benefit, but Beauty and the Beast does only minor tweaks.
And: obviously, right? A remake is going to have similarities to the thing it’s a remake of. But, in the case of Beauty and the Beast, the lack of alterations—and the strength of my connection to the ‘91 movie—meant I was constantly comparing this movie to the older one while I was watching. I couldn’t stop. Condon’s Beauty intentionally invites those comparisons, feeding off the nostalgia of its audience, but the other Beauty is such a higher-quality movie that you just wish you were watching that one instead.
For example: Emma Watson’s singing voice isn’t that great, OK? It just isn’t. It’s “normal person” good, not “musical theatre” good. And while I’m normally willing to cut A-list actors starring in movie musicals some slack—you should be above Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! level, but if you’re Kidman or McGregor in Moulin Rouge! level, that’s fine—with Watson all I could think of was how much better the original Disney Belle, Paige O’Hara, sounded. Combine that with the fact that Watson’s costars Luke Evans (Gaston) and Josh Gad (LeFou) come from a musical theatre background and thus have good voices, and she stands out like a sore thumb.
(Dan Stevens, playing the Beast, also has a good voice, though it sounds like they digitally altered it to make it deeper and more growly. Whatever - at least you can’t hear the autotuning.)
As far as musical numbers are concerned, “Gaston” is good, “Belle” is a letdown because of the sub-par singing, and “Be Our Guest” is an overproduced jumble. There are some added songs here, as well, pulled from the Beauty and the Beast stage production. Beast’s big number is good, but I really didn’t need Belle’s father Maurice singing about love.
When Beauty and the Beast does make changes, sometimes they add to the film and make it richer, but more often than not they don’t. I like, in the intro, finding out more about the Beast’s particular brand of narcissistic assholery before the Enchantress came along to fuck his shit up; the curse seems more justified than it was before, when it was just “this guy didn’t let me crash on his sofa and I got a rageboner about it.” (Incidentally, regarding the curse: my time loop theory is confirmed. BOOYAH. And this Beauty and the Beast does attempt an explanation as to why the Enchantress cursed all the servants. It’s an unsatisfying explanation, but the writers try.) But this Beauty also delves into backstory about Beast and Belle’s mothers, which… did we need that? I’ll go ahead and answer my own question: No, we did not need that, which I know because it wasn’t in the earlier film and I never once wondered “hmmm, but I wonder how Belle’s mom died.” It doesn’t matter.
Another change: Gaston straight-up tries to murder Maurice by tying him to a tree overnight so he’ll be eaten by wolves. Like… what?! Maurice is later rescued by the Enchantress in a subplot that felt like nothing so much as an attempt to pad the running time. (This movie is 2 hours and 9 minutes long. The ‘91 movie was 1 hour and 24 minutes long. A Beauty and the Beast movie does not need to be two hours.)
On the more positive side, LeFou is given an actual character arc involving his slow realization that Gaston’s a douchebag, instead of just being the boilerplate dipshit sidekick character. (As for anyone wondering about the much-discussed “gay LeFou” stuff, there’s not much to it: LeFou shoots some lingering glances Gaston’s way that indicate he’s nursing a crush, though it’s never explicitly stated. In the big dance number that closes the film, there’s a brief moment where LeFou is thrown together on the dance floor with another male side character. That character was earlier seen, with two other baddies, being given the whammy by the wardrobe, whose big fight move involves putting the three men into elaborate dresses. The other two freak out and run away, while the third gives a “heyyyy, I think I just figured some stuff out about myself” smile. The whole thing is lowkey played for comedy, though less in a “haha LeFou’s gay” way than a “haha LeFou’s a pathetic comic relief character” way, for what that’s worth. Also, Gad occasionally veers into some “swishy” mannerisms that were maaaaybe not the best call here.)
Now, I know I’m highlighting a whole lot of negative here, which is directly at odds with the “I Kinda Liked It Anyway” of my headline. But you know what? I fucking did. We all have movies that we know aren’t all that great, but we watch them anyway, because they make us feel good. Beauty and the Beast made me feel good. That’s more because I love the story and the songs and the characters—you know, the things from the first Disney movie—than anything Condon did. But I’ll take it. Condon may not be up to the task of reimagining one of the best-loved children’s movies of all time, but he can’t quash the magic entirely.
Dan Stevens is a great beast, even if the mo-cap technology occasionally fails him. (STOP. DOING. EXTENDED. CLOSEUPS. OF. HUMAN. OR. HUMANOID. DIGITALLY. GENERATED. CHARACTERS. IF. DOING. SO. MAKES. THEM. LOOK. PLASTICKY. COUGH. ROGUE. ONE. COUGH.) Human!Beast, post-transformation, is somewhat of a letdown in the looks department, but it wouldn’t be Beauty and the Beast if that weren’t the case. (Note: I’m not saying that Dan Stevens isn’t hot. He is. I saw The Guest. I’m saying that seeing human Adam all Jesus Lite with the long hair and the baggy clothes after being the Beast for the rest of the movie always has been, and always will be, a sort of “Hmm. Oh. Really?” moment.) Stevens does wear honest-to-God peacock eyeshadow in the prologue, though. I count his casting as a win.
Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson do a fine job taking over from the estimable Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and Angela Lansbury, respectively. Guru Mbatha-Raw, playing the feather duster Plumette, is underused and should have played Belle but no I’m not bitter. As mentioned, I really like Luke Evans in this, which is… not something I’m particularly used to saying. (He was good in High Rise, a movie that I did not like. Other than that… ehhhhh?) And Audra McDonald, playing the wardrobe, is goddamn stellar. During the closing credits at my screening, she was the only one who got a round of applause. Because we’re hoity-toity New Yorkers and she’s Audra McDonald, but still.
Put simply: For fans of the ‘91 Beauty and the Beast, you’d do better rewatching that movie than watching this. But you can’t exactly see the ‘91 movie on a big screen anymore, so this one is a fine (if inferior) substitution if you go in knowing parts of it are going to make you scratch your head and knit your brow. It’s going to make a shitton of money regardless.