In 1991 came what might be the crowning achievement of Disney animation in the second half of the 20th century: Beauty and the Beast. A princess story by way of a monster thriller, Beauty is scary and funny and the songs are charming and eminently enjoyable. The film was the first to incorporate CG into hand-drawn animation, and the richness that results from the process is truly breathtaking. Everything about Beauty and the Beast worked; the movie was a hit with audiences and critics, and became the first animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award (the others are Up and Toy Story 3).
Twenty-six years later, we now have Beauty and the Beast in live-action, directed by Bill Condon, and starring Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as Beast. It’s a strange project. The movie captures much of what’s trending in Hollywood, including nostalgic remakes, live-action adaptations, and an increasing appetite for musicals. But there’s so little deviation from the ’91 Beauty (a little backstory about Belle’s mom, and that completely unwarranted) that at times I wondered why we should bother with this film. No matter how good it is, what’s the point? Why is a real-life facsimile of a superior animated film worth the effort?
Don’t misunderstand me. Beauty and the Beast is a fine film. Bill Condon does well with the scale of the film on a story level and managing the multifaceted components of human actors and clock and candle actors. Emma Watson does moving work with the very strange job she is given here (more on that later). The musical numbers are familiar, but generally work. Especially the opening number in that small provincial town. Condon takes maximum pleasure in what big-screen, massively populated wide-angle musical numbers can do. If audiences want to see a very fine rendition of the 1991 Disney animated film brought to live-action, that is what you will get here, and exactly so.
Some stories, it turns out, may not belong in life-like photorealism. The story of Beauty and the Beast has been done in live-action, and wonderfully. But Disney’s Beauty and the Beast? Truly, tell me: how realistic does a movie like this really need to be? What’s the real value of watching a live-action candelabra dance with a live-action feather duster? I suppose Condon and his team of animators do tremendous work rendering a very accurate portrayal of what such a thing looks like. But seriously, who cares?
It’s just a stupid looking image. This is a real problem when 50% of the movie’s cast is just things. The bureau in Belle’s room, the piano and the piano bench, Chip the teacup. It’s all so dumb when you see it portrayed realistically. What was supposed to be enchanting and magical looks like…plates and forks.
There are exceptions. The Beast looks impressive, and the castle itself imposes as dreadfully on the audience as it does Belle and her father. The performances of all the enchanted what-have-yous, from Dan Stevens as Beast to Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci and all the rest of the household objects work as well as they can, really. But good voice-work doesn’t hide the fact that boring things are happening onscreen.
If anything in Beauty and the Beast recommends a viewing, though, its not the magic but the humans. Maybe that’s how it should be, but if so, that begs the question once more: then why bother?
Prior to release, much attention was paid to Beauty bringing the first openly gay character to Disney. Josh Gad plays the sexually confused gay man, Lefou, comrade of the big bad Gaston. Gaston, who is played by Luke Evans, looks like he was pulled straight from the streets of Disneyworld and thrust into a 160 Million dollar movie. As for the LGBT breakthrough in Disney, there’s little to report. It happened. Baby steps. (The boycott based on an LGBT character is one of particular relish: nothing gets in the way of your favorite family-oriented beastiality movie like a gay man).
Which brings us at last to Emma Watson, who has a very peculiar task in Beauty and the Beast, and its one she handles with incredible discipline. More than any other aspect of Beauty, I enjoyed thinking about just how strange the making must have been for the woman at the center of this weird movie.
I loved the thought of Condon narrating her performance: Look up at the stair case, now laugh at the clock, okay, now smile at the candelabra, okay now they laugh at you because you talk to a hair brush so you’re embarrassed. Great work, Emma!
Watson is of course no stranger to green-screen and CG-heavy filmmaking, having spent most of her life shooting Harry Potter. But this must have been a different experience entirely. What is it like to shoot a scene with a dresser? Talking to a tea cup? How much time did Watson spend wandering with a look of awe on her face as she takes in a castle that isn’t there, on a guided tour from a clock and a candle shorter than her kneecaps?
Watson gives an emotionally affecting performance in spite of, or maybe because of, the weirdness of it all. Her singing has been criticized in some circles (needlessly), but her technical capability as an actress is what she leans on here. Without that, the remaining pieces of Beauty and the Beast would add up to little more than a candle dancing with a feather duster.