Last year, I re-watched Beauty and the Beast for the first time in ages. I picked at it, because that’s my thing, but I still loved it because I’ll always love it. I have massive little girl nostalgia for that movie.
My interest in seeing the live-action Beauty and the Beast, meanwhile, was always pretty mild, but I went to see it anyway, mostly because my sister and my buddy wanted to watch it, and anyway, I like going to the movies and eating Milk Duds, so I figured I’d have a pretty good time no matter what.
I did have a good time going out . . . but the movie itself? Yeah, not that great.
Far as I can tell, there are no adaptation-specific spoilers until you get to the appropriately named SPOILER SECTION; however, this review is assuming that you’ve seen the original 1991 Disney film. If you haven’t seen that . . . I mean, seriously. Go watch that. Because it’s a classic, and because I’m going to spend about 5,000 words comparing and contrasting these movies anyway.
An enchantress curses a selfish and vain prince (Dan Stevens) to live his life as a
CGI hideous beast unless he can fall in love and be loved in return by the same person. Later, Belle (Emma Watson), a book-loving villager who wants more than this provincial life, agrees to become Beast’s prisoner in order to save her father. With the help of wolves, talking furniture, and a damn fine library, romance blossoms.
1. I feel like I should clarify up front: Beauty and the Beast isn’t a terrible movie, exactly. It wasn’t torture to watch or anything. It’s just kind of drags on, and there’s a lot I want to fix. Let’s start with the runtime.
Beauty and the Beast is 2 hours and 10 minutes long. This is totally unacceptable.
There is absolutely no reason at all this movie should be over two hours. Frankly, there’s not much reason this movie needs to be a full two hours, either; the animated film is actually only 1 hour and 50 minutes itself, and it doesn’t really require a whole lot of stretching out. But adding an additional ten minutes probably could have worked. Adding an additional twenty? No.
Nearly every scene feels like it takes too long, including all the musical numbers, which–while pretty to look at–mostly seem to fall a little flat for reasons I’m having difficulty articulating. There are multiple additional scenes that are completely unnecessary: Beast’s backstory doesn’t work as well as it could, Belle’s backstory doesn’t work at all, and I lost all goddamn patience during Beast’s solo song. And if you have added twenty minutes to your film and the romance between Belle and Beast still seems rushed? Nope, sorry, that’s a fail, sir.
2. So, here’s a thing: other than to make bank, I have no real idea why Disney bothered to remake this movie.
And before anyone says everyone reboots movies to make bank, dudes, I get you, I’m totally there. But ideally, it seems that the best way to approach a remake is to find a film that speaks to you in some way and update it with purpose. Maybe it’s an awful film with a great premise and just needs to be redone with actors who can act and dialogue that’s not atrocious. Maybe it’s a perfectly enjoyable, dude-heavy action film that becomes a perfectly enjoyable, lady-heavy action film AND an interesting exploration of gender roles with a gender-swapped cast. There are a lot of neat ways to remake a movie, but based on the things that this adaptation chose to change and which it chose to keep . . . I’m having a hard time figuring out the why of it all.
A lot, a lot, of this movie is shot-for-shot (far too much of it, in my opinion). Shot-for-shot works really well for online videos, like Star Wars fans recreating a famous lightsaber fight scene with toys or something, where you can appreciate all the passion and work people put into this one moment, especially if they have a low-budget. In straight up-remakes that you have to pay your own money to see, though, it mostly just makes you wonder why you’re not just watching the original movie again for free. Homages, I think, tend to work best in small moments, rather than recreating whole scenes–especially because when you finally do start changing stuff, people are gonna wonder, “Wait, that’s what we’re changing? Seriously, why are we changing that?” If you’ve got a good answer that can be intuited by watching the film, that’s cool. If not, you’ve got problems.
This movie, I think, has problems.
3. We probably can’t discuss the full extent of those changes without spoilers, so let’s talk about some of the main cast instead.
I find Emma Watson perfectly serviceable as Belle, but that in itself is a bit disappointing because I wanted to love her as Belle. You hear Hermione Granger is going to star in Beauty and the Beast, and you’re like, Well, damn. That’s a bit of genius casting . . . but unfortunately, I sometimes found her a bit flat. Not always, like, when Beast shows Belle the library? I totally buy her reaction to the library. But there are other times, particularly in the music numbers, that don’t work as well for me. I feel like she’s just sort of . . . there, not quite as present in the scene as I’d like her to be. (I’m having trouble articulating this as well, but let me clear about one point: I’m not talking about her singing voice. That sounded pretty much fine to me, possibly because I don’t know enough about singing to give a damn about autotune. Either way, I didn’t take issue.)
It’s also possible that some of my disappointment with Belle comes from the hype about making her a stronger feminist character. I mean, I saw where little touches were added, but . . . mostly I wasn’t all that impressed, like, if you’re going to make Belle the inventor of the family, cool, but then actually do something with it, you know? I wanted to see Belle use her mad inventor skills to escape the castle and help Beast fight Gaston and stuff, not, like, do unconventional laundry once.
I actually don’t have a whole lot to say about Dan Stevens. He does a decent job with the role; some of his dry-as-hell line deliveries land particularly well for me. (I liked one especially that I can’t fully remember now or find online, but it made me laugh out loud in theater.) I’m not deeply convinced that giving him a backstory is necessary and if you’re gonna bother doing it, I think you should at least write one that takes more than two words to sum up. That being said, it does make more sense than Belle’s backstory, and where it totally fails in characterization, it does kinda, sorta succeed in smoothing over a plot hole from the original film, something we’ll be discussing later on.
It should be said: the Beast’s CGI face remains a little stupid. I mean, I got used to it eventually, but still. Not a fan. (Actually, none of the CGI faces quite worked for me. Mrs. Potts, in particular, kinda weirded me out.)
Pretty much every review I’ve read of Beauty and the Beast thus far, whether positive or negative, has been quick to highlight that Luke Evans steals the show as Gaston. I’d agree, to an extent: he is fun, and I enjoyed his performance, but I don’t know if I loved him quite as much as everyone else seemed to, perhaps for unfair reasons, like, I kind of miss the ridiculous depth of Richard White’s voice, and because this show really doesn’t seem all that hard to steal. It’s also possible that I enjoyed his story a bit less because it’s so inextricably linked to LeFou (Josh Gad), and there are problems with LeFou. (To be fair, I do think Evans and Gad have pretty great chemistry.)
I, too, felt a bit weird about Gaston’s first encounter with Belle because, to me, he comes across much less like the invading, egotistical, alpha male that he is and more like, IDK, a quarterback who doesn’t like to read much and is nervously asking out the school nerd. Belle, of course, is under absolutely no obligation to date anyone she doesn’t want to date, but how she speaks to Gaston here would be charitably described as abrupt; rude and mean-spirited are other possible adjectives. If he approached her the way he did in the animated film, I’d totally get her reaction. If he approached her the way he did in this film but we got to see that this was a pattern of behavior, one moment in an ongoing series of harassment, I’d get her reaction. If I thought the movie was intentionally and successfully turning Gaston into a much more insidious, less cartoonish villain who’s preying upon Belle by playing “the nice guy,” I’d get and probably like her reaction. . . but not much in the rest of the movie supports that interpretation for me, so . . . yeah. I just don’t quite know what to do with this.
Regardless of all this, Luke Evans easily does some of the best work in the film and he does seem to be having an awfully good time, which is always fun to watch. I particularly like the moment where he goes to his happy place. It’s probably not where you or I go. One hopes, anyway.
4. Let’s talk about the servants now, because I think what I’d really like to see, more than anything, is a version of this story from their POV.
This latest adaptation makes some potentially interesting changes to the servants, which I’m fascinated by . . . but then fails to follow through with most of those changes, leaving them feeling a bit underdeveloped as a whole. I found myself wanting to hear more about each of them; unfortunately, the 2 hour, 10 minute version of Beauty and the Beast somehow doesn’t have time for that, either.
As far as the servants go:
A: The Lumiere/Cogsworth/Plumette Not-Quite-Love-Triangle
I actually liked Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) a lot more than I thought I would, considering how much I loved Jerry Orbach in the original film. I don’t really have any significant analysis to provide here, just that a fair number of his line deliveries worked for me. Honestly, McGregor would be a much higher candidate for MVP if it didn’t feel like Lumiere pretty much dropped out of the story in the second half of the film, much to my disappointment.
Cogsworth, meanwhile, is voiced by the great Ian McKellen, so of course I enjoy him fairly well too, underused as he is here. I like most of his moments with Lumiere, and–as so many other people have already pointed out–I would’ve been much happier if Disney had decided to make these two a bickering old married couple. Instead, they made LeFou their One Gay Character, and gave Cogsworth some weird running joke with this woman that never really worked for me. It’s a bit underwhelming.
Maybe if Cogsworth and Lumiere had been a couple, Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) would have something more to do? Oh, who am I kidding: if Cogsworth and Lumiere had been a couple, Plumette would’ve probably been cut straight from the movie, cause what use is a lady if she’s not some dude’s love interest, right? Anyway, Mbatha-Raw is completely fine in the role; she’s just given nothing particularly interesting to work with. She does, however, look stunning near the end of the film when she transforms back into a human, like, her in that white dress is just beautiful.
B. Mrs. Potts and Chip
Chip is basically Chip. He’s little and cute-ish. He’s fine.
Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) is okay, too. She has a number of lines and line deliveries that I like . . . but I kind of wish she hadn’t changed her accent. I’m assuming the intent was to sound a little more like Angela Lansbury? But I don’t know, I didn’t really need that. (I’m aware this is a hypocritical attitude from someone who wished Luke Evans’s voice was a little deeper at points. Look, “Gaston” is just my favorite song, okay? I tried not to have too high of expectations, but sometimes we fail as people.)
C. Madame Garderobe
. . . okay, look. This is just a personal thing, and I’m probably going to be the only person in the world who’s going to have this complaint, and that’s fine, but . . . Audra McDonald didn’t quite work for me here. Which isn’t to say she’s bad because she’s not–and of course her voice is wonderful because she’s Audra McDonald–but it’s just that I’ve always had this weird love for the Wardrobe. She always reminds me of someone, I don’t quite know who. Lwaxana Troi crossed with a large, busty operatic singer who also bareknuckle boxes. on occasion. Look, I never pretended my expectations were realistic, okay? Consider this me continuing to fail as a person, and being fine with it.
Seriously, though, to be fair to McDonald, my biggest problem with Madame Garderobe’s characterization is probably borne out of the script, so off to the Spoiler Section it goes.
5. Finally, before we move onto those spoilers, I just want to say this: there are moments that often work better in an animated movie than in a live-action film. You can get away with a lot more in cartoons: talking animals, brightly colored superhero costumes, that sort of thing. Of course, I’m not saying these things can’t work in a live-action story because of course they can, but you do have to work a little harder if you want your audience to buy into it.
This is all to say that when flesh-and-blood Emma Watson takes Phillipe the Horse by the face and demands to know where her father is like she’s actually expecting an answer . . . you know, maybe we should have rethought that particular moment. Cause I burst out laughing right then.
Let’s begin with the prologue:
Personally, I adore the look of this, how ridiculously stylized and rococo it all is. Is it accurate to the time period? I don’t know, and I don’t particularly care, either. I just think it seems fun, different, its own interpretation of the opening scene. And, c’mon, Dan Stevens with the wig and makeup? That’s just hilarious. There are plenty of other scenes in this movie that are pretty, but so many of them seem like poor copies of the original, and they suffer by comparison. For me, not much lives up, visually speaking, to the first scene.
Here, of course, is when the enchantress comes in with her curse, which means there are a few things we should talk about:
A. The party guests all flee the party and, due to the enchantment, end up completely forgetting about the castle and everyone who lived there. Initially, I just assumed some writer decided it was weird that no one remembered a whole castle and decided to fix the plot hole. I didn’t yet realize that the villagers themselves would end up being the party guests. It’s kind of an interesting spin, honestly, but it also makes me wish the story did much more with it, particularly when it comes to the villagers’ relationship with the servants.
B. In the original version, the servants are turned into singing teacups and timepieces and candelabras for the poor misfortune of having a sucky boss. Here, however, the servants are apparently being punished for something they actually did–or rather, something they didn’t do. You see, when the Beast was a little boy, he was all good and kind and sweet, but then his mother died, as mothers do, and his mean, mean daddy taught him to be vain and selfish and cruel. And the servants didn’t step in and help the kid, making them at least partially culpable for how he turned out.
When it comes to making the Beast a more sympathetic character, this five second, daddy issues backstory is bullshit, like, come on; I’m a huge sucker for that particular trope, and I’m still like Dudes, seriously. You want me to empathize, put in the fucking work. But as a justification for what happens to the servants, it’s actually pretty interesting. I don’t know if I buy it, exactly, mostly because this is one of those places where a flashback or two actually wouldn’t have gone awry. You can look at this like a bunch of adults sitting back and watching a child be neglected/mistreated/abused, in which case, absolutely, they’ve earned some serious punishment coming their way. OTOH, we don’t really know the extent of Bad Daddy’s assholery because it’s given roughly the same amount of consideration that I give to making a vegetable side dish with dinner before deciding to just eat bread and butter instead. Not to mention, it’s easy to shake your finger at the servants if you’re not taking their class and position into account; if you are, realistically, what could any of these people have possibly done to save this kid from his shit dad? (And, of course, none of this excuses the fact that Chip, also a little boy, is unjustly turned into a teacup for doing absolutely nothing wrong.)
Whether you buy it or not, it’s interesting stuff, especially when you take into account that in this particular version, all the enchanted servants are cursed to become inanimate and non-sentient if Beast and Belle don’t make with the smoochies in time. It’s actually a considerably more severe punishment and horrifying fate than the one Beast gets for turning the enchantress away in the first place, which is the kind of thing you think somebody might bring up . . . but this movie never does.
And as I mentioned before, the movie also really never does anything with the relationships that the servants have with the villagers. Mrs. Potts, for instance, is apparently married to Mr. Potts, who’s been in the village this whole time. He doesn’t remember he has a wife and a child because of the curse–so, really, he’s being punished too, presumably for not stepping up and telling off the prince for being a jerk, because, sure, that probably wouldn’t get him beheaded or anything. Anyway, what gets me is the fact that Mrs. Potts never gets to have a scene missing the husband who’s forgotten about her. Shouldn’t we at least know that she has a husband out there somewhere? I’m not saying she has to give a five-minute soliloquy, just, something. There’s just so much interesting character work that could come from the changes this adaptation makes, but nobody working on the film was apparently interested in that, so there’s just so much here that feels underused and underdeveloped to me. It’s frustrating.
C. Absolutely nothing about the enchantress makes sense to me. Nothing.
Unlike the fairy in the animated version, the enchantress doesn’t just wave her plot-weaving curse and fly away. Instead, Agatha the Enchantress silently lives and works in the village for absolutely no reason I can tell, other than to be ridiculed by the jerk villagers and/or help poor bastards who get tied to trees. I assumed she would eventually tie into either Belle’s or Beast’s secret backstory, but she really doesn’t; the only plot-relevant thing she does (other than making and breaking the curse, of course) is to save Maurice (Kevin Kline), but, like, anyone could have done that, especially if she’s not even gonna back Maurice by telling everyone what happened to him. I am just at a complete loss to understand what she is even doing in this movie.
Moving on, now, to our provincial little town:
Remember when I said that shot-for-shot stuff works well for online videos? I was watching “Belle” when I was thinking about that. If the big opening musical number of this movie was just a well-produced online vid that someone had paid Emma Watson a boatload to star in for five minutes? I’m pretty sure I’d be in love with it, that I’d be ecstatic to see so much hard work put into something like that for the fans, even if I liked the original version better. I wish I could feel that way about it here, but in the context of the whole film, it just . . . it doesn’t quite work as much as I want it to. It’s cute, but it also feels . . . stilted, rehearsed. There’s something about it that doesn’t quite feel like a natural scene in a movie.
During this song, Belle picks up a book, which turns out to be Romeo and Juliet, and see, here’s a perfect example of something that I assumed I had no expectations about and somehow ended up with all these complicated feelings anyway. Cause the Beast later gives Belle shit about the fact that she likes a romance novel, which is sort of crappy and sexist of him, especially considering the widespread stigma against romance (And assuming you think R&J is a romance, I suppose, and not a treatise on why infatuation is stupid; I’m assuming Belle thinks the former, since she doesn’t actually argue the latter.) Then again, I have to admit that I also very nearly groaned out loud when Belle told us what she was reading . . . because when I think “far off places, daring sword fights, magic spells, a prince in disguise,” I tend to think something a little more, IDK, A Princess Bride than Romeo and Juliet. Like, she’s clearly describing a romantic, fantastical adventure book, not a tragic romance where the two main characters think of primarily nothing but each other, yes? (And yeah, I know Belle is actually describing her own story here. I don’t care. I’d put Beauty and the Beast closer to APB than R&J any day of the week.)
We also get our introduction to Maurice, who’s . . . fine, I guess.
On one hand, I kind of like him because a) he’s played by Kevin Kline, who’s pretty likable, and b) he’s considerably nicer to Phillipe the Horse than animated Maurice ever was. (Although I still don’t trust the man’s judgment. Cause sure, he quite understandably runs away from a talking teacup and otherwise enchanted castle, but he also stops outside to steal a rose because his daughter wants one. Dude. Your daughter will understand. Draw her a rose, if you must; I’m sure she’ll forgive you.) On the other hand, Maurice’s relationship with Belle doesn’t totally work for me, and to discuss that we’ll have to get into Belle’s Stupid Backstory.
Belle, like Beast, has a dead, tragic mom, but Belle’s mom is something of a mystery. We doesn’t know very much about her, not even how she died, but eventually with the help of a Random Magical Atlas, Belle discovers that when she was a baby, her mom contracted the plague in Paris, and Maurice had to leave her behind to keep Belle safe. And that’s a very sad story, of course, but like the enchantress, I have zero idea what it’s doing in this movie.
For starters, it’s one thing to not tell the audience how Belle’s Mom died, but for God’s sake, why wouldn’t Maurice tell Belle? After all, Maurice didn’t give Belle’s Mom the plague. All he had to say was, “Honey, your mom got sick and died,” and that would be the end of it. This is a secret that didn’t need to be kept from anyone, and that’s kind of infuriating.
Also, Tragically Dead Mom is presumably supposed to flesh out Belle’s character somehow, but I’m really failing to see how that works. It doesn’t give Belle a deeper sense of purpose, an agenda, or a secret side to her character that we’ve never seen before. It does give Maurice a certain amount of man pain, I suppose, but not much else. I think I get the idea: Maurice, lost in grief, became super overprotective, took Belle to a tiny village which felt safe, and trapped her in this humdrum life. The problem with that is that Maurice never really acts all that overprotective; moreover, for all her singing in the beginning, Belle never does all that much in this movie to suggest that she has this repressed wanderlust, that she’s been fighting her father on going places, seeing things, having her own adventures. All in all, we spend an awful lot of time on a backstory that seemingly serves no purpose whatsoever to the plot or characters.
Let’s move on now to LeFou.
There are certain things about LeFou that work for me, at least conceptually. Making him a reluctant villain and redemptive bad guy, for instance, is interesting; I can’t pretend I was anticipating that, going into the theater. He’s got a few good lines, and I like that he gets to have a happy ending.
But there are problems here, too. For starters, LeFou is still a terrible choice for Disney’s first openly gay character, partially because–despite his ultimately redemptive nature–he’s still a villain for most of the film and not a particularly bright one at that. It’s also because his sexual identity is never actually all that explicit (implicit, sure, but there are no actual romantic declarations, no boyfriends past or present, no real amount of time spent on this aspect of the character) and because I feel that Disney couldn’t help but play LeFou’s sexuality–especially in the tavern scene–for laughs. That upsets me. This isn’t the 90’s anymore, hasn’t been for some time. The joke can’t be ‘ha-ha, you’re gay,’ especially if you also say you’re trying to be inclusive. You don’t get brownie points for that.
You’d also think that LeFou might, you know, have a reaction shot or something to finding out that yes, his evil BFF/crush has fallen to his demise. Like, I get we’re in Happy Ending times and everything, but that’s the problem with giving a loyal henchman a redemptive arc; you kill the villain off, and the henchman’s gonna have some Feels about it. I don’t know exactly what I wanted to happen here, just that LeFou apparently shrugging Gaston’s death off and dancing with some dude at the Happy Ending Party didn’t quite cut it for me.
Hm, what else. Should we just A-B-C Notes it for the rest of this review?
A. Here’s something good I will say about the film, which is also rather embarrassing: I legit started tearing up when all the enchanted servants became inanimate objects.
I know. I was pretty horrified at myself too; Self, I thought, you don’t even LIKE this movie. What’s up with the eye leakage? Regardless, the eyes decided to leak. There was just something both so simultaneously sad and frightening about the scene, about everybody trying to get to their loved ones before they were frozen and lifeless, before they pretty much died. It hit me. Fuck it.
A1: A caveat? I’m pretty sure all the female characters succumb to their eternal sleep first, so the men can be all like, “NOOOO!” before succumbing themselves. That was kinda bullshit. (Also: this was a big part of my problem with the characterization of the Wardrobe, like this narcoleptic shit? No. She’s larger than life, goddamnit.)
B. Here’s something less good about the film: Beast’s solo song of loneliness and doom? No. This is where I finally gave up. This is where I had to stop myself from throwing my arms up in the middle of the theater and screaming, “OH MY GOD, no one cares! We don’t need this at all! How many more minutes are left in this movie?”
C. A question I’d like to pose: if you have access to a magical atlas that instantly transports you wherever you want, why in God’s name would you take Phillipe back to the village to save your father when you could have just grabbed the book, teleported to Maurice, teleported back to the castle, and been done with it?
D. Finally, Belle’s line about the prince growing a beard at the end of the movie made me laugh. Dan Stevens’s supposedly sexy growl in response, meanwhile, made me pull back in my chair a little and think, Yeah, no. That’s a little creepy and sad. That’s not hot. According to my internet research, however, I appear to be in the minority on this, so I’m very interested in your opinion.
Come on, it won’t take long! Just comment below to tell me Sexy Beast Growl: Hells to the YES, or Dear God, NO.
(Belle, frightened, hits Lumiere)
Lumiere: “Oh, you are very strong! This is a great quality.”
Belle: “What are you?”
Lumiere: “I am Lumiere!”
Belle: “And . . . you can talk?”
Cogsworth: “Well, of course he can talk! It’s all he ever does!”
Belle: “I never thanked you for saving my life.”
Beast: “I never thanked you for not leaving me to be eaten by wolves.”
LeFou: “Think of the war! Blood, and explosions, and the widows.”
Cogsworth: “Maestro, play quietly, please.”
Maestro Cadenza: “Oh, quietly, sotta voce. Of course. Are there any other tasteless demands that you would like to make on my artistry?”
Cogsworth: “No, that’s it.”
Belle: “What’s your name?”
Cogsworth: “That’s a hairbrush.”
Belle: “You take me as your prisoner, and now you want to have dinner with me? Are you insane?”
Gaston: “What would you call that?”
Gaston: “It’s outrageously attractive, isn’t it?”
Chip: “Mom said I wasn’t supposed to move because it might be scary.”
Maurice: “It’s alright.”
(Beat, then Maurice runs away)
Belle: “Forever can spare a minute.”
Gaston: “It’s hero time.”
It’s not that I couldn’t watch it again. The cast is pretty good, there are some funny moments, a few interesting if unrealized ideas. It’s not that I’d absolutely never watch it; I just probably wouldn’t choose to of my own free will. If the movie were 20 minutes shorter, it would just be a disappointing adaptation, but at 2 hours and 10 minutes, it’s also considerably longer and more tedious than it needs to be. Basically the exact opposite of what you want from a feel good Disney musical.
Romantic love defeats curses. Daddy issues, too.