Synopsis: Tale as old as time, tune as flat as sidewalk.
I have a love/hate relationship with Beauty and the Beast. It was never my favorite Disney animated (hello, Pocahontas!), but I can see why people love it. I like a lot of the songs. I like Jerry Orbach (every New Yorker has to) and I do tear up when I see the end. I got pretty excited at the announcement of the live action version, but with the excitement came high expectations.
If you must know, my personal movie watching philosophy in TL;DR form is Low Expectations, High Standards. In other words, appreciate great works of art in film and be able to tell what makes something exceptional but don’t expect such great quality to the point where you can’t be entertained. That explains my love for King Arthur!
Back to it, I had high expectations and high standards for Beauty and the Beast for several reasons, mostly due to the name Alan Menken, the Disney Vault, and the long following the original animated version had. Despite my indifference towards the original, I always appreciate a good musical! Also, Emma Watson was studious, right? She would practice her singing. And there was Ewan McGregor! Emma Thompson! Ian McKellen! The cast was rounded out well! Then the soundtrack was released on Spotify and my optimism died faster than the fall of a Disney villain. I didn’t have much hope going in. Overall, I was disappointed and unmoved by this live action version.
I don’t think you need to see this version. If you have a strong opinion on the animated, you are either going to really love it or really hate it. If for some reason, you’ve been living under a rock for the past 25 years, definitely watch the animated first and then maybe see this version. No matter what, follow it with the Broadway version starring Megara (Susan Egan, plot twist!). That version will blow your mind.
As for the movie, there are some really entertaining moments in Beauty and the Beast, but for the most part everything feels extremely flat and wholly uninspired and… empty. It’s a pretty movie, but it’s for the sake of being pretty. The singing, with the exception of McGregor’s Lumiere and Luke Evan’s Gaston, has little to no emotion to it. Watson’s line delivery (“I didn’t want to go back”) sounds like she’s reading a picture book to five year olds. The climax of the ballroom scene (specifically where Beast lifts Belle) just feels meh. The pacing of the music is also all over the place, which makes way too much room for pauses and dialogue. It’s as if there are deliberate moments director Bill Condon is waving to show you how nice something looks. As a result, Belle, the ballroom scene, and Something There all struggle to find their footing. Most of the visuals were taken directly from the animated which is fine because the source is a classic and was revolutionary but it also feels lazy and entirely dependent on the 1991 version. Be Our Guest is the biggest disappointment due to this- it’s basically a CG shot-by-shot replica of the animated. I don’t think replicating something is necessarily a bad thing (take the several different versions of Les Miserables, for example), but there’s a difference between drawing inspiration, paying tribute, and directly ripping from a source.
Ok let’s get out of this rut: Once you get past the watered down aspects of the movie, plot holes, caricatures, and imperfect singing, the movie gets better. Not by much, but enjoyable to an extent and still very flawed. There are also a lot of additions to the story, some which work and some which don’t. The backstory of Belle’s mother and insight into the Beast’s childhood was much needed for the live action and made it feel like a fuller story. I’m not sure if Gaston’s mention of the war was successful- apparently, it was supposed to be more of the “snotty guy who peaked in high school,” but it kind of comes off as PTSD and he’s just a lonely guy looking for love and something to hope for. Lefou’s admiration for Gaston feels forced and rushed, though I understand the significance of Disney’s first openly gay character (minus Wiggins. I mean, come on). I loved the addition of the Kevin Kline song (mostly because Celine Dion did the pop version) and Days in the Sun was also a pretty good new song. There are also several lines thrown in that tie up loose ends in the animated, like the supporting castle characters becoming their inanimate objects as time wears on, the age of the Beast, the man who is forced to wear a dress by the Wardrobe, and why Ms. Potts and Belle’s father never got together (you know you all wanted them to).
I’m not going to pick so much on Watson and, overall, the lack of classic musical talent in the cast. Everyone (except maybe Luke Evans) gets the Autotune treatment. I don’t mind it or poor singing so much if there is emotion or aspects of the character captured behind it. Watson’s Belle gets stronger as the movie goes on and the less singing she has to do. You can tell which songs she is straining in (original) and the ones written more for her range. After seeing all the images of her in an empty room, later to be filled in by CGI, I’m a little more forgiving of her acting and she has a couple of really good scenes. McGregor, while getting the short end of the stick, carries nearly every scene he’s in- and he doesn’t even show his face! I don’t care how Scottish his French accent sounds- I just love how much fun and delight he’s having. Audra MacDonald is a goddess as expected, and Emma Thompson brings the warmth and wisdom needed for Mrs. Potts. The standout performance is Luke Evans. I knew he could pull off the character’s unapologetic arrogance (Evans is handsome and he knows it) and I knew he had some experience on West End, but his vocal range really blew me away. His delivery of the word “barge” gives me chills and “I don’t know what that means” is just perfect. Gaston is hands down the best scene in the whole movie. And Dan Stevens as the Beast is fine, though the design of the character is a little too… cute to be the Beast. He looks so cuddly! And he’s just so human. Shouldn’t he be getting more Beast-like as time goes on? His solo is a little goofy, but he’s got a good voice.
I realize I’m a lot more forgiving of mediocre talent and musical arrangements here than I was for La La Land- I think the difference is that Beauty and the Beast never claimed to be some iconic musical that stacked up against its predecessors or the definitive version of anything. It’s clearly a visual version of Beauty and the Beast made for fans of Beauty and the Beast by fans of Beauty and the Beast. And as empty and flat as this version felt, I think it’s fine- we will always have the original source. WE HAVE THE ORIGINAL. No need to complain. For future Disney live action projects, I’m hoping they capture the essence and spirit of the animated, because really, that’s why we hold onto them so much.
But don’t you dare mess with Part of Your World, Disney. I’m warning you.