Few properties have a greater market penetration than an animated Disney musical, so it’s been no great surprise to see the Mouse House capitalize on the possibilities of exploiting such material, with direct-to-video sequels, then Broadway musicals, and now live-action/CGI remakes. The 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast—the first animated film to receive a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars—now gets the live-action treatment, but where last year’s The Jungle Book felt fresh and vibrant in live action/CGI, Beauty and the Beast proves dispiriting.
Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Mr. Holmes) only manages to breathe life into the material when he diverges from the original film, as in the sumptuous bookends set in the pre- and post-curse castle of the French prince of swell hair (Dan Stevens). There, Madame de Garderobe (Broadway goddess Audra McDonald) sings a new number as the screen fills with gloriously costumed waltzers.
Once the prince is cursed to live as a beast, his castle enchanted, and his attendants turned into furniture, not much changes about Beauty and the Beast, except our enjoyment of it. At first, it appears the material may play in live-action: "Belle," the number that introduces the story’s winningly bookish heroine (Emma Watson) kicks off the story proper with a bit of musical charm and a handsome village square populated with a diverse chorus.
The always welcome Kevin Kline shows up as Belle’s father, then Luke Evans as dastardly narcissist Gaston (both, not for nothing, solid singers), and the injection of character actor vigor stokes hope that this was all a pretty good idea after all. But then we arrive at the cursed palace, domain of a CGI beast (who obviously hails from the Uncanny Valley) and his collection of photo-real furniture: candelabra Lumière (Ewan McGregor), clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), et al. And all at once it hits us: nope.
The story’s intact, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s songs remain (with four nice-enough but narratively unnecessary new songs by Menken and Tim Rice), and there’s still plenty to look at it. But the tone is all wrong: the warmth is gone, and Condon’s version of the spectacle feels cluttered, claustrophobic, and hurried in ways the original doesn’t. The kaleidoscopic “Be Our Guest” isn’t delightful anymore; it’s anxiety-inducing at best, and numbing at worst. Most of the sight gags, like moths flying out of the wardrobe’s “drawers,” just don’t land as well in the CGI/live-action idiom.
Had Condon simply put Stevens in makeup and a suit, that would have gone a considerable way to solving this remake’s problems. But the fact of the matter is that, pound for pound, scene for scene, there’s not a sequence here that the original film doesn’t execute better in the clean lines of hand-drawn animation and the crisp vocals of the original cast.
So why should anyone see the remake? Beyond curiosity, I can’t think of many compelling reasons. Perhaps that’s why Condon started a buzz about Disney’s “first exclusively gay moment,” a nice touch (and, as it should be, no big deal), but not a good enough reason to spend a week’s salary to take your family to an inferior version of a classic you probably have on hand at home.