It may be about a tale as old as time, but the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast is certainly not one for the ages.
It seems the curse of the enchantress in the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast is not to turn a selfish prince into an ugly beast to teach him how love again, but to turn everyone into beautiful, expressionless, boring creatures and teach everyone nothing.
It’s not that Bill Condon’s remake is completely terrible. In fact, there are several wonderful things. Dan Stevens is great as the selfish prince who invokes the wrath of the enchantress. Ewan McGregor is perfect as Lumière, as is the rest of the supporting cast that includes Ian McKellen, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, and Emma Thompson. Luke Evans is phenomenal as the narcissistic Gaston. Actually, he’s the best thing about the film by a country mile. He’s all testosterone, bravado and no brain, lusting after Emma Watson’s Belle with an increasingly disturbing fervour and an increasingly unbuttoned shirt. Toxic masculinity, thy name is Gaston.
It’s also not to say this remake is without any new depth: Belle’s father (Kevin Kline) won’t tell Belle (Emma Watson) how her mother died; Belle, it is pointed out, is the only literate woman in the whole village and is punished when she tries to educate other girls. Even the brainless Gaston isn’t safe from the kiss of depth: his ego is only as big as LeFou’s (a terrifically camp Josh Gad) and his ability to keep it inflated – be it through bribing the villagers to be in constant awe of him, or through LeFou’s own sheer sycophancy.
Speaking of fancy, much has been made of the fact that LeFou would have an “exclusively gay moment” in the remake. While the anticipation will inevitably lead to a bit of a let down, a gay LeFou most certainly does not. The film does him justice. If Evan’s Gaston is the best thing about the film, it’s only appropriate that it’s Gad’s LeFou that makes him so. Like Gore Vidal’s suggestion that Messala hates Chartlon Heston’s eponymous hero in Ben-Hur so deeply because the two were in a relationship and Ben-Hur later refuses to rekindle it, LeFou’s overt (as overt as Disney would allow) sexuality adds so much to the film. What used to be inexplicable adulation for Gaston now can only be explained as unadulterated adoration – there is nothing LeFou won’t do for his love. This unrequited love charges the ‘Gaston’ number and unsurprisingly makes it the film’s best.
But for all the beautiful things, there are the beastly. In this case it so happens that’s the core of the film. Emma Watson is terribly miscast. She’s not a naturally gifted singer. Someone like Paige O’Hara (the animated version’s Belle) had the ability and range to imbue the lyrics with emotion and playfulness, to make it feel like a song was the only true way to express her feelings. However, Watson struggles to tap into any emotional power, almost as if she cannot afford to concentrate on anything other than hitting the right notes. The result is that her voice feels overproduced, bereft of any joy and distant like she’s singing in a 21st century recording studio rather than an 18th century village.
Without the raw power of singing to flesh out her character, Watson’s Belle appears less dazed and distracted than laconic and aloof. She’s always within touching distance of ‘mildly’: mildly annoyed when Gaston harasses her, mildly surprised at seeing the Beast and mildly concerned for her father’s safety. Watson’s brow twitches when shocked, rises when ecstatic and furrows when annoyed, but that’s about as much emotion you’ll get out of her.
It doesn’t help that her foil is a CGI beast whose face is even less expressive. The Beast in the cartoon was a wonderfully expressive creature. You were scared when he was terrifying, angry when he was cruel, and raw when he was in love. Your heart soared and sank in time with his. He was vulnerable and made us so too. Somehow, a 3D, CGI, motion-captured humanoid beast struggles to match that rollercoaster of emotions induced by a 90s 2D animation. The beast is also inexplicably attractive? The snarling grimace and the hunched back of the animation is replaced by a square jaw, straight nose and blue eyes. Why? Can we viewers not be trusted to root for anyone who isn’t physically attractive? Can the beauty only get the beast if he looks like a young, very hairy Brad Pitt with fangs? Is that what makes him worthy?
The CGI problems pervade the whole film. The film struggles to to reconcile the concept of live-action with the magical. At least in the original the beauty and the beast were equals in animation, colours on a page. In the remake, the fusion of the CGI and the real is rarely convincing, especially during the crucial ‘Tale as Old as Time’ scene. The beauty of the spectacle is lost amidst the clunkiness of the effects.
Moreover, gone are the expressive features of Lumière, Cogsworth and company. They’re replaced by more realistic-looking objects. The irony is too sweet to ignore. An animated film in which lifeless household objects are turned into fully-rounded anthropomorphised characters is remade into a live-action film where these same characters retain their lifelessness from the start. For all its nostalgia mining and star-studded cast, the remake can’t hold a Lumière to the 1991 original. 2/5
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