Remaking what is arguably one of the best animated films ever made is inevitably going to result in backlash, because why have an inferior facsimile when you can cherish the real thing? So the best approach would be to find an agreeable mean: adhere to the original enough for fans to flock to the theatres in the name of nostalgia, and add a few original touches to make the endeavour something more than just a carbon-copy. Of course, the best scenario would be to do a complete retelling a la Pete’s Dragon from last year, but realistically that can only be done when no one cares much about the original (hence, why I can see Disney going gonzo with something like The Black Cauldron a few years down the line, when they’ve exhausted all the well-known titles). But everyone cares about Beauty and the Beast. It’s one of the Holy Grails for Disney aficionados, and that includes myself. So you can’t flush the original down the toilet and start afresh. You have to give the audience what they want: the superlative Ashman/Menken songbook, the iconic golden gown and ballroom dance, the anthropomorphic servants, and the brainy, feisty Belle—one of the most progressive entries in the Disney Princess canon. Take any of that away, and there goes your profit.
This is the compromise: 80% remake with 15% extra filler that is, alas, glaringly filler. I need only point to Stanley Tucci’s harpsichord as representative of that, a character who has no need to exist and is never given a reason for being there other than to add something “new” to the background. Window dressing. The new songs are also glaringly “new,” especially the Beast’s solo “Evermore,” which sounds like something rejected from the Broadway version and doesn’t make sense in the context of the film. Why does the Beast sing a song pining about Belle’s freedom and promising to remember her when, several scenes later, he gloomily allows the mob of villagers to storm his castle in a quasi-suicidal acceptance of his fate? I can say Dan Stevens sings it well, but it’s not needed. I’ll be kinder to “Days in the Sun,” however, because at least it gives the servants an outlet to express a longing for their lost selves that they don’t otherwise do elsewhere. And with the added caveat to the curse that they will become fully inanimate if it’s not broken, there’s reason for them to be melancholy here.
Alas, though, that may be the only original aspect of the film worth keeping. As for what has been remade… it’s adequate. Obviously not a patch on the original, but who was expecting it to be? Emma Watson is not a very good singer (and Auto-Tune can only hide so much), though she’s very down-to-earth as Belle and I think it works for her. Stevens is a solid Beast, doing a lot of emoting behind the CGI. The servants are well-cast, especially Ewan McGregor (who makes the Busby Berkeley-inspired “Be Our Guest” a smash), Emma Thompson (as warm as you’d expect), Audra McDonald (predictably out-singing everyone) and Ian McKellen (not given much, but does a lovely job nevertheless). Luke Evans is a perfect Gaston, and I love that a gay man was cast in such a macho, hypermasculine role (and fuck can he sing). Josh Gad is fun as LeFou, though his queerness is only revealed through silences and molded into comic relief, which… yeah, not very progressive, unfortunately, though it’s so tempered that I’m not going to rail to the winds about it. And Kevin Kline is very lovely as Belle’s father. A dependable actor you can count on to bring the goods.
But they’re all surrounded by highly artificial, unwelcoming sets and guided by a director who kind of squanders his opportunity to make an impact. Condon isn’t terrible, but he doesn’t have the vision to give this film the sweeping, intimate lushness that it deserves. Take the staging of “Beauty and the Beast,” for instance. Arguably the emotional apex of the original, and the scene everyone remembers, and here Watson and Stevens look too small and contained, engulfed by their surroundings and looking like they’re doing a few tired steps on the edges of the ballroom instead of filling it with their blossoming souls. Condon makes no effort to make the moment transformational, and the impact is muted at best. Then there’s the horrendous new arrangement to the song, full of unnecessary stops and starts, baffling shifts in tempo, and a general fussiness in the orchestration that robs the original of its gorgeous simplicity. Poor Emma Thompson sounded like she was singing against the music much of the time while Watson and Stevens seem to dance off-time, and in the end, the whole scene falls flat on its face. This is the film’s most egregious sin, I think, but others include the lazy transitions (fade to black, cut to a scene set… a few weeks later? a few months later?) and Condon’s odd tendency to make the Beast’s castle the most uninteresting place you could imagine.
I guess, in the end, this remake squeaks by because it does a decent amount of justice to the original, and since the original is a masterpiece… well, your heart can’t help but melt, can it? The songbook is still exceptional, the characters still vivid and engaging. The ending manages to get you, even though you already know what’s coming. Not enough is done to give the film much of a reason to exist as an entity apart from the animated version, so on that front it falters. Yet it isn’t a tragic mistake, either. There’s enough here to like, despite what the naysayers may say.