"Beauty And The Beast" 2017 Survives Weak Link In Cast

It’s been a quarter-century since Walt Disney Pictures released instant classic “Beauty And The Beast” into the wild, netting the first-ever Best Picture nomination for an animated film – not to mention generations of obsessed fans. Not three years later, the studio began spinning their backlog of animated hits into live-action fare. 1994’s “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book” and 1996’s “101 Dalmatians” would end up early test runs for the full-on blitz that began in 2014 with “Maleficent.” A “Cinderella,” another “Jungle Book,” and a “Pete’s Dragon” later, Disney was ready to stare creative dubiousness in the face. It was written: needless live-action versions of their very best animated films were worth the all but guaranteed billion-dollar profit margins.

Led by “Dreamgirls” director Bill Condon, the new “Beauty And The Beast” sees the spirit of the late artist Andy Warhol and his famous Campbell’s Soup Cans alive and well. Large swaths of the film are all naked reproduction, leaning hard on composer Alan Menken’s incredible original songs and the 1991 film’s now-ubiquitous imagery. In particular, “Be Our Guest” and the pic’s title track remain ideals of film songcraft, of matrimony between music and visuals. (The late Howard Ashman’s lyrics on the eponymous tune were almost singlehandedly responsible for making the awkward Stockholm syndrome bent of narrative at all palatable. People can change!)

Accordingly, Menken’s songs were and are good enough to levitate any picture lucky enough to bear their cascading melodies and acrobatic wordplay. Lucky for “Beauty And The Beast” 2017 – the mostly mechanical film needs them badly.

The titular tale as old as time, based on the 18th century French fairy tale of the same name, is immediately familiar, albeit filled out. The original’s 84-minute running time has ballooned to 129. You know the drill: A bookish, restless young woman named Belle (Emma Watson, the “Harry Potter” film series) resides in a small village with her widowed father, Maurice (Oscar-winner Kevin Kline, “A Fish Called Wanda”). On a horse-drawn trip to sell his music boxes, Maurice is attacked by wolves and forced to seek refuge in a dark, cavernous castle.

His innocent picking of a rose turns the castle’s inhabitant, a glowering man-beast (Dan Stevens, “The Guest”), against him. Maurice is taken as a prisoner, only released when Belle tracks down her father and trades her life for his. Thus begins a most unlikely love story, hastened by the castle’s assortment of anthropomorphic housewares; a cursed prince who must find love in order to steal back human form for him and his servants is given a fighting chance.

Dan Stevens’ mostly motion-capture performance as the Beast is merely adequate, hampered by the unreality of the CGI (the character’s famous hand-in-hand walk with Belle down the castle stairs is noticeably weightless) and a co-star even less convincing. Emma Watson, an able performer, is totally wrong for the role; too young to replicate the vocal presence of Paige O’Hara (who was well into her 30s when she originated the role) and too old to pass as a repressed teenager. It doesn’t help that her shaky singing voice has been pitch corrected to hell, as if to italicize her shortcomings as a vocalist.

The supporting cast fares better.

With more screen time, Luke Evans (“The Girl On The Train”) might have galloped away with the picture. His Gaston, a boastful, belligerent suitor of Belle’s (and the film’s human villain), is an improbably canny translation of the character’s cartoonish buffoonery into real life. Josh Gad (“Frozen”) fares similarly as Gaston’s right hand man LeFou, given welcome depth here as more than just a platonic admirer. Their big musical number, appropriately titled “Gaston,” is a gas, matched only in energy and color by the movie’s musical centerpiece.

When Ewan MacGregor’s anthropomorphic candle Lumiere breaks into those famous words, “Be…. our…. guest,” it’s impossible not to crack a smile, much less suppress the urge to sing along. Lumiere and his fellow housewares’ big shining moment (MacGregor is joined by Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette, and more) marks the pinnacle of the film’s lavish production design and intermittently dazzling special effects. For a few minutes at least, it’s immaterial that MacGregor is no Jerry Orbach, that Thompson is no Angela Lansbury, that “Beauty And The Beast” 2017 is no “Beauty And The Beast” 1991. It’s purely a joy to be taking in “Be Our Guest” in any form, even if performed by a supergroup-cum-cover band.

The screenplay, co-written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, increases its diversions from the original as it chugs along, dotted with a couple middling new songs provided by Menken and some tedious backstory for Belle. The increased running time means more momentum lost between songs, and it eventually leads to a film off the rails. A torturously overlong finale pushes the film into “world’s most elaborate tribute act” territory, finally, fully breaking off from the breakneck pace of the original. By the time the Beast and his domestics are turned back into human beings, Ian McKellen’s bedraggled, grumpy appearance will speak for many.

Since “Beauty And The Beast” 2017 lives in a purgatory that grants no hope of living up to its predecessor, it’s tough to know what kind of curve to grade it on. Not a soul alive wouldn’t be better served by a return trip to the 1991 film. (Then there’s the added benefit of having an extra forty minutes to spare.) But take Emma Watson out of the equation and forgive the integrally more difficult suspension of disbelief (animation is a great lens for fantasy; at this remove this particular story is a little harder to take) and Condon’s film is just about what it should be: A fevered, overblown love letter to a classic. To heights it knows it couldn’t hope to reach.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 17, 2017
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Bill Condon
Screenwriter: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci
MPAA Rating: PG (for some action violence, peril and frightening images)