Beauty and the Beast was the most critically acclaimed animated Disney feature since Snow White, so the live-action turn was going to get incredible scrutiny even before Jon Favreau made a better Jungle Book than either the Disney animated film or the Kipling books. So whomever followed that was going to have a high bar to clear or even match, and when it was followed by Beauty and the Beast, the early praise and jaw-dropping trailers we’d been seeing for nearly a year have experienced a load of critical backlash in the last month. It IS a very difficult movie to review and compare to the original, but this is not the 70% film Rotten Tomatoes currently rates it at. While this live action version of Beauty and the Beast does not reach the perfection of the 1991 film, it is the second fantastic musical we’ve had released for the screen in three months (at some point I may have to stop saying I hate musicals). While comparisons can’t be avoided, and there are some pitfalls, Beauty and the Beast continues a stream of quality re-imaginings of Disney’s animated works, presenting an absolutely gorgeous, moving, film.
It’s easiest if you don’t go into the film with the 1991 film’s script clutched firmly in hand like the Bible, because the screenplay (reworked by The Perks of Being a Wallflower‘s Stephen Chblosky) makes a lot of diversions, additions, sidetrips, and most of them come in the film’s first half. Disney is responsible for setting up the expectation of a clone by mirroring the film’s trailers with the 1991 film and showing little that didn’t deviate from the original. Emma Watson’s Belle is a much more feminist Belle than the animated version’s (it was actually a condition of her doing the film), her back story and the Beast’s are more explored, Belle’s parents come into play, there’s more with the Enchantress, LeFou & Gaston’s….whatever, and the falling in love is much extended from the animated film.
If any of this sounds like heresy to you, then you’re probably going to hate the film. However, Favreau didn’t make a better Jungle Book by being a slave to Kipling or Disney. He tried to capture the best of both and infuse it with his own take to make the best film he could, and I would argue that largely director Bill Condon tries to do the same. Some of the meanderings didn’t work as well for me as others. I don’t really like LeFou very much in the animated film so expanding his role wasn’t something I was crazy about. Kevin Kline is so endearing as Belle’s father, you can’t really begrudge his expanded role or finding out about Belle’s mother, and he’s given one of the film’s best new songs, but the whole subplot could probably have been cut. There are parts of the Enchantress’ role that are confusing in the end, but they improve the beginning of the film in the curse scene and fill a logical hole in the animated film that no one seems to remember there’s this giant castle down the road. Also, I thought Emma Watson and Dan Stevens had great chemistry and they way they have them fall in love seemed much more organic than it did in even the original.
In addition to Watson, Stevens, Kline, you have Luke Evans as an even viler Gaston than in the animated film, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, and more in a tremendously strong ensemble cast. Again, if you stack them against Angela Lansbury, David Odgen Stiers, Jerry Orbach, and the vocal cast from the original film, you’re just going to find yourself at odds with watching a movie and enjoying it rather than trying to hold it up against the light of the last film to see if the match. Why should they word-for-word, dot-for-dot? It would be boring if they did, and if you do want to compare, I think Watson and especially Dan Stevens, give much better performances than the leads from the animated film.
In fact, we’re going to devote an entire paragraph to talk about the best and most frustrating thing about this whole film: the Beast. Dan Stevens, who most people know from his work on Downton Abbey, gives the best a much better, deeper voice than Robbie Benson did. He’s also given THE most spectacular improvement in the film’s soundtrack with a “Music of the Night”-level quality song called “Evermore” that he sings after the ballroom scene as he climbs his crumbling castle in increasing desperation to keep Belle in view as she rides off. It’s THAT good, and feels so right at that point in the story. I think the Best Song Oscar has pretty much been nailed down three months into the year. The problem: the Beast is never consistently real-looking. In close-up or stationary shots he is, but the more he’s forced to move and the greater the distance is he’s shockingly wooden in his animation. Obviously this is not Stevens’ fault, though the decision to not fully mo-cap the character and use a blend that had Stevens wearing a forty pound suit, on ten foot stilts and wearing prosthetic fangs can I think be identified as the scenes that stand out as visually rocky. Why would you even try doing that? In a film that is so beautiful and so perfect, I can’t believe they couldn’t nail that given they brought an entire Jungle to photorealistic life last year, but here’s a short video of Dan Stevens talking about what he had to go through.
Because there’s no comparison to be made to the old soundtrack and have the new film the winner, I actually enjoyed the new songs written for the film more than I enjoyed the renditions of the classics. Not that any of the old ones were done poorly (except I hate the credits version of “Beauty and the Beast”….they brought Celine Dion back to give her Kevin Kline’s new song for the credits, is there no love for Peabo Bryson? LOVE THE PEAB!!!).
It’s not perfect, but it’s not the panicked disaster that some critics have been reporting back on the last month. It opened to a March-record $370 million worldwide and will no doubt be Disney’s first billion dollar film of the year. Really the only question is will they have more than the four (and they were inches short of five) that they had last year. Tale well told!