A tale as old as time… but times, they are a-changing. The children of today haven’t grow up with hand-animated and hand-painted movies, but the stories of yesteryear are still good ones. So introducing these Disney classics to a generation weaned on full CGI with live-action/CG hybrids was a no-brainer for Disney executives. Did they do the original Beauty and the Beast justice though with their latest remake? Well, that’s a trickier question to answer.
Our tale, as I’m sure you all know, begins with a young prince. A prince who denies safe harbour to a beautiful witch disguised as a crone, resulting in the infamous curse that turns the young monarch into the titular Beast, and the rest of his staff into household objects and furniture. Our first deviation from the source material happens almost straight away, as we get more of an insight as to how much of a jerk our prince is. These deviations continue throughout, as Disney have tried to correct, or at least redress, some of the more problematic aspects of the original tale (like why the prince’s household staff were cursed as well). Whether necessary, or a handy excuse to pad the runtime, this version of Beauty and the Beast is the novel to the original’s cliff notes.
In any case, curses happen, magic roses with deadlines are dispensed and we fast forward roughly ten years to the small, provincial town of Villeneuve where our heroine Belle resides. Belle ponders escaping her humdrum life in rural France while fending off the unwanted advances of the local narcissist Gaston. Meanwhile, the rest of the town ponder equally about how weird Belle is, because she’s beautiful and she can read. Gasp! This kind of sentiment comes across as trite now that geek is sexy, but it’s still a good message for kids to see how unflappable and content Belle is about being outside of expectations.
Expertly portrayed by Emma Watson, Belle in live-action is very much like her animated counterpart, but somehow more so. She’s just as lively and just as lovely, but with an extra dimension (no pun intended, promise!). Watson brings more grace and resilience to Belle in her subtle, heartfelt performance.
Most of the main villagers get a makeover in some way. Luke Evans’s Gaston may not be as cartoonish as his animated counterpart, but is far more realistic. Josh Gad’s LeFou is updated with a twist that explains his slavish devotion to Gaston, and Kevin Kline’s overly protective Maurice has a sympathetic backstory that makes him less of a bumbling idiot. Even Maurice’s eventual capture and imprisonment by the Beast has slightly more logic behind it, making it a plot point rather than a plot contrivance.
As animated household objects, the rest of the cast are as familiar as when they first graced our screens 26 years ago. Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellan) and Mrs Potts (Emma Thompson) are more realistically and intricately designed, allowing Disney to show off how far their CGI technology has come. This said, I feel in making these characters so lifelike and detailed, they’ve lost a little sparkle. They’re incredibly realistic, or at least as realistic as a walking candelabra and a talking clock can be, and the animation behind them is truly stunning. However, in worrying about the physics of how these animate objects interact with the real world, they all have less vigour. This is no fault of the voice acting, as everyone does an impressive job with their roles. It’s just the difference between what can happen in cartoons versus “real life”, as it were.
Unfortunately, this lack of vigour extends throughout the movie. The ensemble villagers, the village itself, even the castle and surrounds lack the vibrancy, colour and energy of the original. There’s very little oomph in the musical numbers, and Gaston’s song is especially lacklustre, as is Be Our Guest. As the most rousing, singalong songs of the soundtrack, this is disappointing when you’re expecting a joyous, toe-tapping time. The lyrics and the melodies are all the same, but missing that certain je ne sais quoi.
Thank goodness then that Watson and Dan Stevens as The Beast shine. Here is where I’ll say live-action and motion-capture CGI characters win over traditional animation. Both Watson and Stevens can express a wider range of delicate and understated emotions, which in turn sells the love story in a far more genuine way. Watson plays Belle as a straightforward, takes-no-crap young woman, who gives as good as she gets from Beast. And while Stevens’s Beast is a mean, easily angered, well… Beast, he has far more range and depths to draw on. The love story is no longer a switch thrown in the middle of the movie, but has a solid build-up and a natural progression that the original definitely lacked.
If we weigh up all the pros and cons of Beauty and the Beast, I can’t tell you if they balance out. The story tampering couldn’t fix all the loose ends and problematic situations of the animated original, but it goes a long way towards righting some previous head-scratching plot points. The elaborate CGI animation and world-building is worth all the technical points it can score, but takes a little soul out of the overall experience. Do I think it’s still worth watching? Definitely. Nostalgia is undoubtedly a powerful force, but fans of the original can expect to be satiated, if not entirely pleased.