SDG Reviews ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Slavish imitation and risqu humor break Disney’s recent streak of live-action (or photorealistic) remakes that improve on the animated (or semi-animated) originals.

(photo: Disney)

Can a realistically computer-rendered French gilt bronze candelabra be debonair? Jaunty? Rakish, even?

Can a gleaming, finely detailed English bone china teapot be a warmly maternal, comforting presence? When she tells you it’ll turn out right in the end, will it put your heart at ease?

If an antique English tortoiseshell bracket clock is vain, nervous, excitable and fussily fastidious, is it funny?

Last year’s reimagined Pete’s Dragon wisely reworked the cuddly cartoon behemoth of the original, trading in his vaguely alligator-inspired exterior for soft green fur and a face somehow both catlike and doggy. Computer artists can do amazing things with reptilian dragons, but making them cuddly isn’t one of them.

Pete’s Dragon also jettisoned its source material’s musical milieu, an easy decision to make when the songs aren’t universally beloved and there’s no Broadway musical. Like Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, but even more so, Pete’s Dragon went its own way, making Disney three for three on improving on the originals.

In Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast, directed by Bill Condon (Chicago; Kinsey) and starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens in the title roles, we see the flip side of all this.

Mrs. Potts and her son Chip the teacup are as substantial-looking and attractive as the very different teapot and mug beside me as I write. Cogsworth is splendid enough to belong in a museum. Lumière is the most physically expressive, which often makes him least persuasively like the artifact he is. As characters, none of them hold a you-know-what to their counterparts from the 1991 classic. To the extent that I felt anything for them, it was due entirely to fondness for the far more vibrant hand-drawn characters they reminded me of.

The voice work doesn’t help much, perhaps unexpectedly, considering the talent involved. Ian McKellen at least registers as Cogsworth, but Ewan McGregor’s French-accented line readings are wan and forgettable next to Jerry Orbach’s droll delivery. Even Emma Thompson, perhaps trying not to remind viewers too much of Angela Lansbury, winds up sounding like a perfectly pleasant teapot rather than the mother you never had, your one real friend and confidante amid frightening and incomprehensible circumstances.

That’s before getting to the singing. Audra McDonald, who voices the wardrobe, is such a powerful operatic soprano that she overshadows the rest of the cast, including Luke Evans’ Gaston, a pleasant tenor very much in the shadow of baritone opera singer Richard White, the original Gaston. Watson is a talented actress and I sometimes bought her as Belle, and she can sing, but she’s no Paige O’Hara.

Of course all the songs are here, along with a few brand-new ones by Alan Menken and Tim Rice (additional songs by Menken and Rice written for the Broadway show aren’t used, surprisingly). The story is expanded (or padded) somewhat, but for the most part it follows the cartoon beat for beat, and often shot for iconic shot and line for beloved line.

And that’s a problem, because the cartoon is already basically perfect: the best and most justly beloved film of the 1990s Disney renaissance, and the only cartoon Disney ever made after the mid-1940s that I would rank alongside their early masterpieces, Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi. When, as a registered nurse at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in the early 1990s, my wife Suz was subjected to any number of kids’ movies on endless replay, Beauty and the Beast was one of the few that grew in her affection rather than becoming intolerable. In a way it is the quintessential Disney masterpiece.

It has been said that bad novels make for good films and vice versa, and bad films rather than good ones should be remade. The weaknesses of the original Pete’s Dragon, The Jungle Book and even Cinderella gave the filmmakers room to innovate. Beauty and the Beast isn’t Exhibit A of how a remake goes wrong by treating its classic source material as a sacred text (that’s probably Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho), but it’s in the top 10.

It didn’t have to be this way. Beauty and the Beast, the fairy tale, is bigger than the Disney musical. Belle had siblings in the classic version written by Jeanne-Marie de Beaumont, and there was no Gaston or LaFou. I love the 1991 cartoon, but I also love Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French-language version, and there’s room for other interpretations, as well.

And we need new interpretations, because the story of an imprisoned girl learning to love her monstrous captor with the encouragement of enchanted servants who need her to love him in order to be liberated is showing its age. We need to not think of Stockholm Syndrome watching this film, and there’s no sign the filmmakers have thought about this. (Contrast with Branagh’s Cinderella, which clearly has thought about the psychological implications of a girl living with a stepfamily that treats her like a servant.)

This version actually aggravates the problem by heightening the stakes for the servants: Following the Broadway show, the Beast’s servants are slowly succumbing to their enchantment; when that enchanted rose loses its last petal, the servants will become inanimate artifacts. So when they manipulate Belle toward loving Beast, it’s their lives, not just their humanity, that’s on the line.

Why does that matter? In the cartoon, the enchanted servants seem oblivious to their own plight; they are selflessly concerned for their master — and it’s as much for his moral and social well-being as his physical transformation. So much is this the case that in the theatrical edition you wouldn’t even know the animated objects were ever human until the spell is broken (the extended edition changes this by adding the deleted song Human Again). In Belle they see “the one … the girl we have been waiting for” who has “come to break the spell.” It’s almost fate; they’re simply helping destined lovers to find one another.

In the new version, the servants are clearly hiding from Belle the fact that both they and the Beast need her to fall in love with him so that he can be human again and they won’t become inanimate objects. This makes the whole business seem more exploitative and creepy.

As this suggests, when the film does add to the source material, it’s usually not for the better. An extended opening narration, depicting the Prince as a preening, painted fop taxing the peasants and partying with the beautiful people — not just cruel or loveless, but degenerate — makes him seem, if not irredeemable, at least needing more redemption than the story has to offer.

Then there’s LaFou, Gaston’s sidekick, played by Olaf himself, Josh Gad. In the cartoon LaFou was a boot-licking toady; here, as Condon’s widely reported comments suggest, he’s pretty clearly infatuated with Gaston. “Who needs her when you’ve got us?” he asks. The “exclusively gay” moment is tacked on in the last shot, but there’s quite a bit of winking and nudging before that — more than any other Disney film I can think of.

There’s panto-style gender-bending humor of the sort the Shrek films popularized for family films, like in the climactic mob scene when the wardrobe disarms a trio of attackers (Tom, Dick and Stanley from Gaston’s Song) by magically dressing them in women’s clothes, causing Tom and Dick to flee in horror while Stanley, of course, smiles radiantly. (Stanley also figures in the closing “exclusively gay” moment.)

Then there’s the Gaston-LaFou innuendo. Take the line “In a wrestling match nobody bites like Gaston” in Gaston’s Song. In the cartoon Gaston chomps someone’s calf; here LaFou proudly displays a bite mark on his chest — a risqué gag I wouldn’t want to see in a family film regardless of the sex of the biter or the bitten. Later in the song LaFou wraps himself in Gaston’s arms before pausing and asking, “Too much?” Too much, Gaston agrees, pushing him away. Yes, too much.

It’s not all bad. Kevin Kline has a touching turn as Belle’s father, Maurice, a less ridiculous and more obviously talented figure here. Much of the production design is lovely, from the little town to the Beast’s castle, although at its most rococo the film is too often garish where Cinderella was resplendent. Cinderella made me eager to share it with Suz and our daughters. The Jungle Book made me eager to share it with my sons. After Beauty and the Beast, Suz and I went home and put on the original.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Follow him on Twitter.

Caveat Spectator: Mildly scary and menacing scenes; some rude humor and gay-themed innuendo. Older teens and up.