Any remake of Beauty and the Beast is going to be a tough sell for someone like me. That 1991 classic so touch my heart and so shook my notions of what an animated feature could accomplish that any attempts to recapture its magic could only come off as an imitation. That, in essence, is what we have here. The live action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is so close to the animated version that you might as well be watching that earlier film; it imitates it beat for beat, but it misses out completely on what made those beats special. All the songs are here, all the characters are here, but there’s an element of wonder that is missing. It has moments of inspiration and some hints of magic but, all the while, your mind keeps floating back to the original. That should not be happening.
Up till now Disney has been very good at turning their classics into live action in a fresh way. Both The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon redialed the story so that even the short-comings of their original source material were tuned out. One asset of The Jungle Book was that you felt that the filmmakers were making the jungle into a character. We were allowed time to soak in the landscapes which were lush with greenery. Here that’s not the case. Much of the film is photographed with a palette of darkness that keeps essential elements in shadow. I understand that this plays to the nature of The Beast’s dilemma but there is low lighting in key scenes that should be sparkling with light and magic and color. That’s especially true of the film’s key scene, the ballroom dance in which the two lovers finally connect. I kept waiting for the high notes to accompany the lights coming up, but no, the scene remains in low light. There are moments when I found certain scenes difficult to see.
For everything that this movie gets right, there’s something that it gets wrong. Take, for example, that wonderful Menkin/Ashman song “Gaston” in which the film’s egoistical villain gets to extol the virtues of his own wonderfulness. It’s a great production number and Luke Evans does a wonderful job in the role, but the song leaves out the line that everyone remembers. Remember the line about his chest hair? Unless I’m wrong, it’s not here.
Another example is The Beast. He’s played beautifully here by actor Dan Stevens as a self-loathing mope who is spaced away from the world. There’s a deep melancholy to his performance and a hint of childishness in his demeanor. He does a very good job of emoting even while buried under tons of make-up. The problem is that his leading lady isn’t nearly as interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I love Emma Watson, but she’s underplaying the role of Belle in such a way that it removes our sympathy. It could be said that her version of Belle is given far more agency and less Stockholm syndrome than her dilemma allowed in the original, but her character doesn’t come alive with personality. Watson seems sour and distracted. She’s an actress who works well at internalizing but she’s place in a role that requires more of an extravert.
My major issue though is one of gravity. In The Jungle Book it all worked because the characters were grounded in the fact that they were animals who live even without talking. Here, the task is much more difficult because we’re dealing with inanimate objects that, in live action, are bound to the forces of gravity. Lumiere and Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts worked beautifully in the animated form, but they look just plain weird when set in the real world.
That’s my basic problem here, a live action version of Disney animated Beauty and the Beast just doesn’t work as a whole. There are moments when it comes alive but, again, my mind kept drifting back to the original. Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon had problematic source material to improve upon, but Beauty and the Beast was so perfectly modulated that the remake can only be an imitation. Maybe it needed something new, something fresh. Maybe it needed a new twist. Maybe it simply needed something anything that wasn’t there before.