Disney’s live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast,” starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, feeds on the nostalgia that audiences have for the 1991 animated feature. As exciting as it might be to watch actors inhabit this beloved story, the film, directed by Bill Condon, seems confused, and confusing.
The fairy tale was written in 18th-century France, and the setting, culture and costumes are faithful to that period. But the film also has to wrangle a 1990s-era girl power heroine, as well as the inclusive identity politics of our times. The result is a mess, lacking a unique cinematic identity and cohesive internal reality. Then again, this is a film that features a singing candelabra and a barking ottoman, so it’s best to check disbelief at the door.
In this update, “Beauty and the Beast” can’t decide between faithfulness to the original (the line readings are almost identical) and story innovation. Caught between the two impulses, any divergences feel peculiar and unnecessary. Consider this a public service announcement: The new song, “Evermore,” is the perfect bathroom break. Arriving nearly two-thirds of the way through the film, the snooze-worthy tune does nothing for the already dragging story. Feel free to skip it.
Many of the story additions are unnecessary; they mostly have to do with character development, and no, this isn’t about LeFou (the much-touted “gay” moment is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it punchline). There’s a short song from the young prince about his dying mother, meant to illustrate the wounded child inside the arrogant, selfish prince turned angry, introverted Beast. There’s a fantastical trip to Belle’s childhood hovel in Paris to color in her family back story, but it only serves to underscore Disney’s “dead mom” fixation.
Of all the new elements, Emma Watson as Belle is winsome, and she carries the film with her intelligent charm. There is something thrilling about watching this story come to life with real actors, which will be a pleasure for adults who grew up with the animated film. But it may go over the heads of the kids in the audience.
The songs remain stirring and cleverly written, particularly the opening number, “Belle.” Josh Gad’s LeFou brings some much-needed levity, but Luke Evans strains to fill the formidable britches of Gaston.
The gruff relationship between the feisty, smart Belle and the aggressive Beast hasn’t changed over the last 26 years, which may give some pause. The Beast is a bully, despite his bonding with Belle over books, and Stevens’ baby blues and halfhearted gestures toward his psychology aren’t enough. There’s a complicated jumble of gender politics at hand, and any attempt at modernizing the dynamic is more of a random piling on rather than a thoughtful incorporation.
Retreads of old movies powered by nostalgia and fond childhood memories are popular cash cows for Hollywood. But are they worthy of our time? As “Beauty and the Beast” proves, without careful craft and consideration for the way these stories are told, the answer is tricky at best.
“Beauty And The Beast”
Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images. 2:09. 2D and 3D: Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond. 2D only: Winchester.