Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline. Directed by Bill Condon. Rated PG. 129 minutes. 2017.
The 1991 animated masterpiece, a Disney production that was the first of its kind to be nominated for Best Motion Picture at the Academy Awards, receives a live-action reimagining with Beauty and the Beast, which spends a lot of time reminding us of its originator and ends up doing it too well. There have been some cosmetic tweaks in the storytelling, some of them appreciated and others mostly innocuous, but one spends the duration wondering what the point to the whole enterprise is. It’s not a cynical thought, either, or at least it isn’t once one moves past the question to look at the creation that sparks it. Director Bill Condon and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos are so enamored with the earlier feature that they’ve gone and essentially created a facsimile of the thing. Comparisons, pesky as they can be, are impossible to avoid in this case.
The story pretty much remains the same. The Beast (Dan Stevens, in a great performance of immense sadness and reluctant compassion) still becomes one after scoffing at the ragged woman who was actually an enchantress, although we receive some appreciated context into the prince he was before the curse was cast. The tragedy of the Beast, of course, is that he was less desirable as a prince than as a misunderstood brute, and this film does a solid job of capturing that sad truth about his character. Belle (Emma Watson), meanwhile, is still a farm girl and an enigma to townfolk who still think it unwise that a girl be a bookworm. She is still sought by Gaston (Luke Evans), the self-obsessed lout who wants her as his bride whatever the cost (Speaking of Gaston, he is still shadowed by LeFou, played by Josh Gad, who looks upon his friend with – let’s say – a little more fawning admiration than in the animated feature), and her father Maurice (Kevin Kline, boundlessly wonderful) is still considered the village madman.
During a horse ride, Maurice still stumbles upon the Beast’s castle, at which he is stunned to discover moving and speaking dishes, furniture, and decor. Trapped by the Beast in a holding cell, Maurice is still found by a frantic Belle, who offers herself up as a tribute for imprisonment in the place of her father. She is treated gruffly by the Beast but kindly by the animated inanimate objects that populate the castle. The candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and the carriage clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) are still the comic relief, the teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and her teacup Chip (Nathan Mack) are still sources of sneaky wisdom, and the wardrobe Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), the piano Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), and the feather duster Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are still pretty much background decoration. The designs of these characters are clever in the way the physiological features develop naturally from the designs of the objects, but the realism is also odd and slightly irksome in execution.
The other design elements, from the magnificent castle to the seamless visual effects to the emotive motion capture work on the Beast’s profile, are stunning to behold, but they tend to outshine everything else here. The bevy of old songs feel, with the exception of the title theme, obligatory (Lumiere’s dinner welcome of “Be Our Guest” falls especially flat as it becomes a lot of random visual noise with an orchestral arrangement that overpowers the lyrics), and the handful of new songs are simply interruptions that say what’s already been said. Unfortunately, this Beauty and the Beast only emulates the pleasures of its animated counterpart, bloating much of a simple story beyond the two-hour mark and removing much of the passion from the production. It’s a gorgeous but mechanical whisper of its true potential, never as before and rarely a surprise.