The best movies from Disney’s late-1980s / early 1990s animated renaissance (including “The Little Mermaid”, “Aladdin”, and “The Lion King”) are marvels of efficiency. Animation in general is such a costly and time-consuming medium that Disney is often forced to boil stories down to their bare minimums. But for a while it seems as though they had used this limitation to a transcendent advantage, having somehow cracked the code to the exact number of scenes and songs required to make a movie musical work, and figured out a way to eliminate all other flab.
The new live-action reimagining– don’t call it a remake– of Disney’s 1991 masterpiece “Beauty and the Beast” (originally directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise) seems to throw that gear hard into reverse. At almost forty minutes longer than its animated counterpart, the 2017 version counts as both an adaptation and an almost-exhaustive expansion of what came before, adding to and expounding on ideas that were already fully formed.
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It’s a bit ironic, then, that the parts that really work in this reimagining are the parts that were lifted directly from the original. Director Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”, “Gods and Monsters”) has done an effective job of recapturing the energy and sheer exhilaration of several key setpieces and musical numbers, especially the soaring opening “Belle” theme and the uproarious pub song “Gaston”.
I have to admit that I also got a big kick out of seeing so many of these iconic characters and locations brought to life, as it were, despite the fact that they already existed in thoroughly-convincing 2D form for more than twenty-five years. “Beauty and the Beast” is a much older story than that, of course, and has been retold countless times by innumerable sources, but Disney is mostly drawing from its own source material here.
The cast is all game, and there’s not a weak link in the bunch. Emma Watson turns in a beguiling performance as our heroine Belle, and manages to sell the protagonist’s delicate balance of small-town charm with an appealing desire for adventure. Luke Evans and Josh Gad steal the show as the villainous Gaston and his sometimes-hesitant sidekick LeFou, and Dan Stevens anchors the picture with his soulful portrayal of the Beast himself– delivered mostly via motion-capture techonology, which sadly still hasn’t achieved 100% believability (the Beast’s CGI face is one of the very few visible seams in the movie’s otherwise-transportive visuals).
The only other real problems arise when screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopolous (almost certainly under the instruction of Disney and the movie’s producers) attempt to flesh out the world of the movie by giving central characters like Belle and the Beast supplementary, and ultimately superfluous, backstories. Do we need to know the off-puttingly grim details of Belle’s mom’s death or why the Beast’s servants hold themselves responsible for their master’s poor upbringing?
These are prime examples of ways in which this iteration of “Beauty and the Beast” unnecessarily overcomplicates what should be– and was, previously– a very simple, straightforward fairy tale about redemption and the power of overcoming superficiality. Unfortunately I predict that the chief complaints about this movie will be that it isn’t faithful enough to the original, which seems bizarre for what is mostly a direct facsimile.
But by and large, I think fans are going to get what they want from this reimagining of “Beauty and the Beast”. The pacing is a bit off because of the extra material, but the main ingredients are so strong that the loss of Disney’s Swiss-watch story structure is ultimately fairly easy to ignore. And at the very least one of the new Alan Menken songs (“Evermore”, sung by the Beast) is moving and potent enough to fit in among those borrowed from he and Howard Ashman’s 1991 compositions.
Bottom line: if you’re okay with the basic premise of remaking, recasting, and repurposing one of the most beloved films in Disney history, in all likelihood you’re going to enjoy the new “Beauty and the Beast”. Because in true Disney fashion, most of those things are done with great care and effort, and the end result comes across as a genuine love letter to that Tale as Old as Time.
Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” will be released into theaters nationwide on Friday, March 17th.
Images Copyright Disney.