Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA, 2017. Mandeville Films, Walt Disney Pictures. Screenplay by Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos, based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, and the 1991 screenplay by Linda Woolverton. Cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler. Produced by David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman. Music by Alan Menken. Production Design by Sarah Greenwood. Costume Design by Jacqueline Durran. Film Editing by Virginia Katz. Academy Awards 2017. Washington Film Critics Awards 2017.
There’s a moment in the 1991 animated Beauty And The Beast that surpasses all others, an interaction of exceptional subtlety and tension that most live-action features can rarely hope to achieve, let alone animated ones: the Beast has saved Belle from being eaten by wolves, she is tending to the wounds that he suffered in saving her, and they trade a few victim-blaming criticisms before she, allowing herself a moment of softness for this creature that has made her a prisoner, utters a brief “Thank you, for saving my life” which is met by an even more hesitant “You’re welcome”. It’s a heartbreaking achievement of a moment, born out beautifully by Howard Ashman’s brilliant lyrics in the title song (“Bittersweet and strange/Finding you can change/Learning you were wrong”), and in my mind the main reason that Ron Clements and John Musker’s masterpiece became the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (and if we’re going to be sticklers about it, the only time it happened before the category was expanded to ten generous nominations). That this particular moment is not dramatized in Disney’s live-action rendering of their own film is a telling example of why this adaptation is such a soulless clunker; she manages to give him her thanks, but it’s later and under calmer circumstances, an afterthought of two characters who decide to like each other with little to explain why. Emma Watson is sorely miscast as Belle, the bookworm daughter of a skittish artist (Kevin Kline, as usual unaware when he isn’t actually performing Shakespeare) who is bored of village life but gets to see something beyond the every day when her father is entrapped by a magical beast (Dan Stevens) in a castle and she takes his place in order to set her father free. The castle she is imprisoned in seems to have no limit of wonders, inhabited as it is by talking furniture who were once the servants of the prince and share in the curse placed on him by a vengeful enchantress. Angry at being held captive by an unkind and ill-mannered monster, Belle mentions her reading habits, finds out that the Beast has some post-secondary education and soon they’re on the road to romance. That Watson is fresh-faced and smart is not enough to have her play a character who, in cartoon form, had an amazing sense of instinctive empathy that doesn’t happen here: she’s a moderately talented actor whose appeal in the Harry Potter series was that she always seemed like she was overthinking everything, the reverse of what is necessary for this character (her book-loving ways are the result of her imaginative and adventurous nature, not the result of being particularly studious, particularly when you look at what she likes reading in either version). That, combined with having only middling skills as a singer, work against Watson here, and while on the subject of music it is shocking that a bunch of performers who, in most cases, have already proven their singing abilities give canned and awkward performances of slowed-down and overdrawn adaptations of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Oscar-winning songs. There’s some gusto in Luke Evans and Josh Gad, as the villainous Gaston and his enamored sidekick Le Fou, putting across the rousing “Gaston”, but the once dazzling “Be Our Guest” is a vulgar affair ruined by cheap looking computer graphics and dull musical direction. Despite such gripes, the real problem with this movie is not that it’s bad, it’s that it is for the most part unnecessary, with additions to the original story that give background and detail to things we were perfectly happy to accept as self-evident elements of fairy tale (we don’t need to know why her dad moved to this boring village, it’s enough to accept that she wants more, and why oh why does the enchantress need to be a person). A perfect 85 minute film is turned into two and a half hours of gross expenditure that has none of the charm of Disney’s original and not nearly the magic in every frame of Jean Cocteau’s classic.