“I use antlers in all of my decorating,” sang Gaston, the lunkish villain of Disney’s 1991 “Beauty and the Beast,” in a self-titled ode to macho excess. He’d no doubt have approved of Christophe Gans’ garishly mounted, emotionally vacant and, yes, lavishly antler-strewn interpretation of the evergreen fairy tale, though it’s hard to see many others being similarly satisfied. Borrowing piecemeal from manifold tellings of the 18th-century chestnut — from de Beaumont to Disney, via Cocteau — but cut from the same CGI-enhanced cloth as 2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman,” this busy update plays up the sword-swishing action while playing down the Gothic romance, with no clear audience in mind. With stars Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel given little to do but admire the scenery, the pic is nothing if not a robust showcase for the world-class work of European visual effects houses; whether it warrants a look in other territories remains to be seen.
“Beauty and the Beast” is versatile genre fiend Gans’ first French-lingo effort since 2001’s crossover smash “Brotherhood of the Wolf”; having enjoyed a modest hit with videogame adaptation “Silent Hill” in the interim, he’s coming off something of a commercial hot streak. That may continue closer to Gaul, where the film opened on Feb. 12 ahead of its Valentine’s Day premiere at the Berlinale. However, the revisionist fairy-tale market has been saturated by Hollywood of late, meaning non-European auds might be less susceptible to Gans’ florid vision than they were to “Wolf” — even though it’s palpably the work of the same helmer. Indeed, Gans is possibly too aggressive a stylist for the material here: This “Beauty” seems a bit too beastly for the family market, and insufficiently swoon-inducing for the femme teens that made “Huntsman” a hit.
At least for the film’s introduction, a kind of storybook classicism seems to be at play, with Gans and Sandra Vo-Anh’s script framing the tale as a bedside story — printed on ornate, digitally yellowed paper — for a pair of wide-eyed poppets, delivered by an unseen mother figure. (Well, mostly unseen: The eyes are hidden, but what viewer wouldn’t recognize lips as pillowy as Seydoux’s?) That, at least, is an early tip-off that the proceedings, however jazzed-up elsewhere, won’t be veering too far from the “happily ever after” formula.
The lensing by ace d.p. Christophe Beaucarne (“On Tour,” “Outside the Law”) also seems complicit in the mood of retro traditionalism upfront, conjuring the honeyed, heightened lighting and meticulous compositional sense of Romantic painters like Caspar David Friedrich and John Constable. Thierry Flamande’s mossy, cluttered production design does much the same, with a nod to the floral grandeur of Jean Cocteau’s unsurpassable 1946 version. Initially, then, the visuals imply a certain spiritual fidelity to the fairy tale’s original incarnation, as published by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. Gans and Vo-Anh restore a number of narrative details that the Disney telling has largely wiped from the popular imagination, notably the characters of heroine Belle’s two vindictive older sisters (played with pantomime aplomb by Audrey Lamy and Sara Giraudeau) and the financial ruin of her loving father (a thoroughly out-of-sorts Andre Dussollier).
A few elements have been reconfigured, and Belle’s family has now been rather needlessly expanded with a trio of young, dashing brothers — an addition presumably made with younger male auds in mind, given that they beef up the derring-do quotient in the latter half. Otherwise, however, the song remains the same. After her beleaguered father is captured by a fearsome, reclusive Beast (Cassel, years too old for the part, even beneath furry, distinctly feline prosthetics), pure-hearted Belle (Seydoux) offers herself in his stead, agreeing to be held captive in his remote castle.
Missions of seduction and rescue ensue; like the Disney film, Gans departs drastically from the more intimate fairy tale for a gung-ho finale that effectively pits the two unlikely lovers against a gang of oppressors. As the film races to this whiz-bang third act, however, the second is a mere formality — Gans relies on the audience’s prior knowledge of the story to fill in the emotional beats, yet the growing affection between Belle and the Beast is scarcely dramatized. (Matters are hardly assisted by the understandable absence of chemistry between Seydoux and the makeup-immobilized Cassel.) Meanwhile, with no romantic attachment to Belle, the motives of chief villain Perducas (Eduardo Noriega) are particularly murky; so, too, is a daft new backstory for the Beast, relayed in sporadic, pace-hampering flashbacks, and offering a curious twist on the Diana’s-arrow deux ex machina of Cocteau’s film.
Gans and Vo-Anh’s script gives every impression of having been repeatedly reworked over time, with not all of its abandoned ideas completely removed from the final product. Most distracting among these is a band of creepily CGI-animated mutant foxhounds that silently shadow Belle around the castle — an apparent nod to the anthropomorphized household items of the Disney film. “They’d become my best friends in the castle,” Belle’s voiceover informs us early on, though we never see them exchange so much as a glance in the course of the film.
That said, Seydoux’s Belle is such a moue-mouthed void that it’s easy enough to believe even her best friends would be rather distant ones. Given no route into the heroine’s inner life by the script, the actress settles instead for looking astonishing in Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s sculptural, pop-colored gowns — the haute couture design elements of which underline the perfume-ad quality of the film’s later, more effects-laden stretches.
Said effects are variable in terms of actual effectiveness, though they’re expertly rendered throughout. Sequences like the positively biblical parting of a pine forest, clearing the path to the Beast’s castle, are genuinely impressive; too many other flourishes, like the giant stone totems that surge out of nowhere to herald his arrival, are vulgar embellishments and their synthetic flavor seeps into the surrounding craft elements, as even Beaucarne’s artful imagery turns radioactive by the climax. There’s digital wizardry galore in this “Beauty and the Beast,” but precious little magic.