Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: "Beauty and the Beast"

Time passes for us all, and for the movies. Since “Beauty and Beast” came out in 1991 and became regarded as one of the greatest animated films of all time, an entire generation has been born, grown up and started having babies of their own. Though it might make some of us feel old to say, it’s passing into cinematic antiquity.

I walked into the 2017 live-action remake with but a single word of question on my lips: “Why?” I left without grasping any kind of answer.

The new movie, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, is almost a shot-by-shot remake of the animated film, with a few extra flourishes and minor changes. They reuse the Oscar-winning musical score by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, with four new songs by Menken and Tim Rice that don’t measure up to the old stuff.

Most of the cast spends the movie in CGI form as enchanted clocks, teapots, harpsichords, wardrobes, candelabras, etc. Directed by Bill Condon (“Mr. Holmes”), it’s a beautiful, colorful film with energetic musical numbers, distinctive characters and an ageless love story.

And it has no reason for existing.

I’m not a purist on remakes and sequels. If you can make something that adds to the mythology of a film, or extends the characters and their individual arcs, then you’ll get no arguments from me. Disney has launched a number of live action remakes of its classic animated flicks, including “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” and I’ve liked almost all of them.

But this one feels different… hollow, somehow. The tragic love story of the Beast (Stevens) and Belle (Watson) lacks the gut-churning emotional wrench of 1991. The best thing about the animated movie was its unexpected dramatic heft. That had the tone of “Romeo and Juliet.” This new one is the TV sitcom version.

It’s not helped by Watson’s singing voice, which is unequal to the task of carrying songs. That’s become a thing lately: casting non-singers as the leads in musicals. (See “Land, La La.”) Maybe it’s time to reconsider.

Stevens’ portrayal of the Beast using a mix of costume, makeup and CGI doesn’t exactly work, either. He looks like a smaller, softer, prettier version of the animated Beast. Even his leonine nose swoops down appealingly toward a modest snarl. I liked the cartoon Beast’s busted, crooked honker and every-which-way fangs. The new one looks like he got Jenny Craig and a plastic surgeon.

You know the story: village bookworm Belle stumbles into the castle of the Beast looking for her lost father, Maurice (Kevin Kline, changed from inventor to artist here). The master of the house and all his servants have been hexed with a terrible curse, which will become permanent if the magic rose loses its last petal before he finds true love. Belle agrees to become his prisoner in exchange for dad, and antagonism gives way to blooming romance.

The heavy is again Gaston (Luke Evans), the swaggering musclebound hunter/soldier who desires Belle for himself. Josh Gad, as the flunkie LeFou, adds notes of jaded longing for his longtime companion. Some people are upset about having a (more or less) openly homosexual character in a Disney movie, but I was more perturbed he falls into the weary cliché of gay man pining for an unavailable straight.

Ewan McGregor takes over the Lumiere role of rapscallion candelabra; Emma Thompson is Mrs. Potts, and does a reasonably good job warbling the title song; Ian McKellen is unctuous butler Cogsworth; Audra McDonald is the operatic wardrobe; Stanley Tucci is a new character as the wardrobe’s musical and marital accompanist.

Originally they were going to weave some of the songs from the stage musical version into the movie, but instead went with four new ones. Two are just short trifles, while the Beast’s “Evermore” is a bland Broadway hollerer. Though “Days in the Sun,” sung by Watson with help from the supporting characters, more adequately explores the dilemma of the servants caught up in their master’s curse.

I think the lesson is if you’re going to remake a beloved classic, you need to let it evolve. Take some risks, change it around and see how audiences react. They may not like it as much. But there’s no magic in mere repetition.

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