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Bill Condon is the only person who could direct a live-action adaptation of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. He is drawn to stories about outsiders such as Gods And Monsters or Mr. Holmes. Condon is also no stranger to the fantastical Candyman: Farewell to The Flesh or Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 & 2. I haven’t even mentioned Dreamgirls, the Beyonce musical and winner of five Academy Awards. If you’re looking for a man who could bring the classic and beloved tale of Belle and the Beast to life, Bill Condon is uniquely qualified.
When the movie goes all out, larger than life, this is a musical with a capital ‘M”. It’s a joy. The movie starts out roaring out of the gate. It’s the mandatory prologue telling us about the selfish prince and the hag who curses him to a life of bestial purgatory. The movie adds a bit about how the village is cursed so as to have forgotten about the prince, which neatly closes a plot hole from the animated film.
It’s a terrific scene. The Prince is throwing a ball for some reason or other, but Condon and his cinematographer Tobias Schliessler really allow us to experience the opulence and decadence of the Prince’s lifestyle. There’s a lushness to the scenes that lend an air grandiosity to the whole enterprise.
We then meet Belle (Emma Watson) in a rousing classical old school MGM musical number “Belle”. The only real flaw in the number is Watson. She’s not terrible. She’s not great either. In the end, she’s good enough. The townspeople tell us about how Belle is such an odd duck because she reads and has opinions.
We also meet Gaston (Luke Evans) and LeFou (Josh Gad), and we realize holy crap these two can sing. Evans and Gad have terrific chemistry together as they sing and ham their way through the movie. Everybody is good. They’re too damn talented not to be. You have Kevin Kline, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Audra Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Dan Stevens.
Beauty and the Beast is filled with little moments by great actors working with a great director and landing a solid emotional punch. The problem is it’s all peaks and valleys. For example “Be Our Guest” is so much fun you almost think the movie has found it’s groove. It’s a visual spectacle worth of Disney and Condon. But then there’s a never-ending scene where the Beast has a solo. It’s drab and monotonous. The melody and the lyrics are ill-suited for each other. There’s a rousing orchestral moment during the ‘feel sad now’ moment, and the whole thing just feels forced.
The main problem is Belle and the Beast. Watson is an immensely talented actress, but she’s not given much to do here. Stevens, who I fucking loved in The Guest is usually magnetic and intense. Here the two seem to miss each other even while sharing the same screen.
Part of it is the special effects. Stevens as the Beast is… off. His look is almost more man than beast. The way the Beast is rendered, while visually striking, lends the character an air of not really existing with any kind of weight. There were times in Kong: Skull Island where the giant ape felt real, even though I knew he wasn’t. He seemed to exist in his space. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle and Beast often share the same space without feeling like they are.
It doesn’t help that Belle and the Beast hardly talk to each other. Sure they have scenes together, but rare is the scene where the two actually converse. Most of Watson’s scenes are with the servants in the mansion: Cogsworth, Lumiere, and company. These scenes mire Watson in exposition and give her little chance to do any acting.
But holy Jeebus does this movie look gorgeous. Does it feel like a giant mega-budget Broadway musical that someone adapted to film? Yes, but with three great songs and a few original, oddly tempoed songs thrown in just to keep the movie from being good.
Honestly, Beauty and the Beast is kind of a mess. It’s rote and boring for long stretches of time. There are expected emotional payoffs that come up empty because the movie hasn’t done the leg work to make us feel it. There’s added backstory about Belle’s mother, but it really doesn’t add anything other than information. Whatever emotional payoff it tries to wrangle out of it comes up wanting.
The changes made to the original 1991 animated movie feel more like padding than organic changes to flesh out characters or story arcs. I did like the diversity in casting, though. It was nice to see PoC play characters that didn’t require them to be PoC. (Though, show of hands, who would have loved to see Mbatha-Raw as Belle?) As for all the hullabaloo about Gad’s LeFou and his gay moment? I’d say if you blink you’ll miss it, only I didn’t blink and I still missed it. It was only as the credits rolled that I realized the moment that caused all the ruckus.
Disney has been re-imaging their classic animated movies into live action adaptations for a few years now. With each one, they’ve tried to update the story or look at it through a non-patriarchal lens. In other words, they were updates, reboots, remakes, whatever you want to call them. They were stories that tried to do something different than the original.
Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast added thirty minutes to its runtime and little else. This is a kid-friendly movie for the whole family. It’s also a toothless bore throughout most of its run. This shouldn’t be. The people behind the camera, as well as the people in front, are too damned talented for something this mediocre.