The idea seemed promising: take a classic, well-loved, mega-popular animated Disney film and remake it as a live-action movie; hire an accomplished, imaginative director; cast it with good actors. You would be guaranteed to end up with something different, fresher, more illuminating than the existing cartoon version, something potentially more powerful. One might even hope for something that would be more involving for parents.
How frustrating it is to report that, with Beauty and the Beast, the result is about as much like a cartoon experience as a live-action film could possibly be. It was all rather disappointing for this Daddy.
Remakes are almost as old as film itself. However, I can’t think of any instance of an animated film that’s been remade in another cartoon version. There have been, though, a couple of previous instances when this cartoon-to-live-action path has been taken. That’s what happened with 101 Dalmatians in the 1990s and with The Jungle Book just last year.
I haven’t seen the new Jungle Book, but, in Dalmatians, it’s fun to see actors like Glenn Close and Jeff Daniels bring a third dimension to the characters, even to those as wonderfully realized and familiar as Cruella de Vil, and even if the remake doesn’t eclipse the original.
Twenty first century filmmaking being what it is, however, the impulse now is technology über alles. There’s amazing things that can be done in film labs, and what studios (including Disney) believe sells is flash, spectacle, and as many explosions as can be detonated.
In Beauty and the Beast, the Disney labs prove up to their task: no expense has been spared to animate the inanimate and to conceal the flesh-and-blood actors.
So, while Director Bill Condon has assembled an impressive array of acting talent for the film, most of them might as well be doing voice-over work. Some are shot behind heavy make-up (as is the case with Dan Stevens’ Beast) while the actors playing the Beast’s servant entourage (you remember, the curse transformed them into candlesticks and teapots and such) were filmed using motion-capture technology.
These actors are, for all intents and purposes, giving about 95% of their performances vocally.
Call me old-fashioned, but I’d rather watch something like The Wizard of Oz, and experience the characterizations that Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr are allowed to develop through make-up which, though heavy, still allows access to their faces and bodies.
Condon is a filmmaker whose earlier work (films such as Gods and Monsters and Kinsey) I’ve admired. I don’t remember much detail from his earlier musical (Dreamgirls) but I do remember thinking it was quite good when I saw it at the Uptown during its initial release.
His style in Beauty and the Beast, however, is off-putting: claustrophobic, dizzying, broad, and loud. The camera seems in constant swirling motion when it’s not stuck in the face of one of the characters. If what they’re after is to make the castle seem magical, the result just underlines the artificiality of the approach, an approach that doesn’t season the fantasy with much humanity. (And no staircase in this castle with its scary heights has a railing; I guess that was part of the curse.)
Production Designer Sarah Greenwood and Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler keep to a dark, ashen palette. If the intention was to bring a gritty realness to the fairy tale, that effort should have been matched by an effort to bring more depth to the performances and more emotional resonance to the fable, but neither of those aspects is coaxed very far out of a “theatre for young audiences” range. So the visual style is Les Miz (my kids wanted to re-watch the cartoon film after we saw the new version, so I put that on and was struck by how colorful it is in comparison to this film) while the acting is mostly stuck at the level of an animated film.
Stevens in his Beast outfit, with voice lowered through some sound effect, is forced into broad choices that would embarrass a Star Trek-era Shatner, and the pre-/post-curse Prince bears little resemblance to the Beast, so there’s not much character consistency.
The unencumbered actors don’t make much more of an impression than their compatriots. Emma Watson, as Belle (Beauty, don’t you know) is sweet and fresh, and at least she is able to give interesting little tweaks to the odd lyric here and there.
But pity poor Kevin Kline, who plays Belle’s father. There isn’t an American actor of his generation who has had a career to compare with his: success on film and on stage, in contemporary material, in classic plays, in musicals. We were counting on him to bring some richness to the father-daughter relationship. He’s not bad in the part, just kind of disappointing. He’s not been given much of a chance to deliver on the promise of his casting.
Luke Evans fares a bit better as the heavy, Gaston. If his self-satisfied smirk gets a wee bit tiresome, at least he seems to be having fun. Josh Gad is Gaston’s wing-man, LeFou. A talented musical theatre comic actor, Gad would, I’m sure, slay the role, fully rehearsed and doing it live on stage. The “Gaston” number should be a show-stopper, but there’s something about the scale of it on-screen that leaves it feeling rote. If I were to go to YouTube to show someone how good that number could be, I’d choose the cartoon version over this version. (Actually, if it existed on YouTube, I’d chose the version we saw last Fall at Imagination Stage.)
What exactly is Ewan McGregor doing in this movie? He’s playing Lumiere, that’s what. I can’t think of anyone more different from Law & Order cop/Broadway musical actor Jerry Orbach, who did the role in the cartoon. I guess they wanted the character to read as younger, and to give his romance a kind of Pierrot/Pierrette poignancy.
When the movie ends, the cast emerge and do a little pose as their credit appears. McGregor gives us a flourish and a charming, wicked grin. Too bad not much of that personality is seen during his motion-captured performance. He’s tiny, and comes across like a tarnished Gumby doll.
McGregor sounds better singing than he did when he and Nicole Kidman tortured “Heroes” in Moulin Rouge. Apparently, he danced the centerpiece number “Be My Guest,” and that would have been fun to see. Watching a realistic candlestick icon mirror McGregor’s moves isn’t a satisfying alternative.
At least McGregor’s got one up over Ian McKellen, who’s playing a clock. The motion the machines capture with him is confined to isolated parts of his face. At the risk of sounding like Norma Desmond, faces are important in acting. There’s a line-less cameo by the guy who drives a cart to the asylum. We see his face. Consequently, he made a greater impression on me than does poor Sir Ian.
God, I wish they’d somehow have set these actors free, to bring what they are obviously capable of to these roles. After the climactic transformation, when the tchotchkes all become human again, you watch Stanley Tucci play the harpsichord in accompaniment to Audra McDonald.
Tucci is a delight, throwing himself into the music and into the conceit. Those few seconds demonstrate what’s lost, as we are fleetingly treated to a live actor doing something real. Welcome as this is, it doesn’t make up for the mostly forgettable voice acting that has preceded that sequence. (Does Tucci do anything before that? It was difficult for me to track his piano character at all.)
For some reason, McDonald, making a rare film appearance, does less singing than some of the other actors, even those not known for their musical talents. It’s kind of like casting Baryshnikov in a film and then letting Tom Hanks do all the hoofing.
McDonald does reprise a few bars of the title song, though that is delivered in full by Mrs. Potts, played by Emma Thompson. (Mrs. Potts was sung in the cartoon by Angela Lansbury. Maybe there’s a rule that only former Mrs. Lovett’s get to sing that song.)
And let’s take a second to thank our lucky stars for Emma Thompson. The two times that this film had any emotional impact for me involved her.
The first was her rendition of that title song. The song is familiar enough and sweet enough that it gave some emotional heft to the core relationship in a manner that the dialogue scenes do not.
And she anchors the film’s most successful sequence, which is when (spoiler alert) the spell is broken and the knick-knacks revert to being people.
Thompson’s reunion with her son (Nathan Mack, who has previously been a teacup) has the emotional punch one wishes for in the Watson-Kline relationship.
Of course, that sequence is so good not only because of Thompson; it’s when what Condon and company seem to be after gets realized, however belatedly. It’s my theory that, by accessing their actor resources then, the film achieves a vitality that it lacks earlier, when the poor actors were basically stuck behind mics.
Another successful aspect of the film is the fleshing out of some aspects of the story. The cartoon version is quite short; less than 90 minutes. Our live version clocks in at two hours plus.
In the new film, we understand much more clearly that Belle and her Dad are outsiders in the small town in which the story takes place, and the back-story involving Belle’s Mom is developed here; it’s not part of the cartoon’s story arc.
Also, the enchantress (played here by Hattie Morahan) who had placed the curse on our Beast doesn’t disappear after the opening; she remains in the story as a Beggar Woman, who returns at the end to effect the lifting of the curse, and that’s great. Memo to Mr. Condon: it works because it involves a good actor, and we can see her face!
If Condon had found other ways like this to give the story more dimension, the resulting film would have been so much more to my liking, anyway.
There are some new songs, including a number for the Beast, one of those solos in which the character belts out his angst. Look for that to be frequently performed by kids auditioning for musical theatre programs everywhere.
My children are four-and-a-half. The most enjoyable part of our moviegoing experience was seeing my son Aksel literally on the edge of his seat, happily attentive throughout. (My daughter Ivona ended up in my lap. The wolves scared her.)
My brief with this review, however, was not to look at it from the perspective of the target kiddie audience, but from the perspective of those who will accompany them.
For this Daddy, the live-action B&tB is not the dearest. Sure, a few things have been fixed, but it wasn’t really very broke to begin with, and the film could have been so much more appealing if the “action” part of “live-action” involved the actors more.