Film Review: ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Beauty and the Beast trailer
Courtesy of Disney

Disney's live-action remake of its 1991 animated classic, starring Emma Watson as a pitch-perfect Belle, is a sometimes entrancing, sometimes awkward mixture of re-creation and reimagining.

You could say that the notion of turning beloved stories and characters into brands was invented by Walt Disney. He built his empire on the image of Mickey Mouse (who made his debut in 1928), but Disney really patented the brand concept in 1955, with the launch of Disneyland, where kids could see old familiar characters — Mickey! Snow White! — in a completely different context, which made them new. Twenty-three years ago, the Broadway version of “Beauty and the Beast” (followed three years later by the Broadway version of “The Lion King”) introduced a different form of re-branding: the stage-musical-based-on-an-animated-feature. Now the studio is introducing a cinematic cousin to that form with the deluxe new movie version of “Beauty and the Beast,” a $160 million live-action re-imagining of the 1991 Disney animated classic. It’s a lovingly crafted movie, and in many ways a good one, but before that it’s an enraptured piece of old-is-new nostalgia.

There’s a lot riding on “Beauty and the Beast.” Given its sheer novelty value (the live-action “Cinderella” released by Disney in 2015 wasn’t really cued to the 1950 cartoon version), the picture seems destined to score decisively at the box office. But the larger question hanging over it is: How major — how paradigm-shifting — can this new form be? Is it a fad or a revolution? Disney already has a live-action “Lion King” in the works, but it remains to be seen whether transforming animated features into dramas with sets and actors can be an inspired, or essential, format for the future.

Going into “Beauty and the Beast,” the sheer curiosity factor exerts a uniquely intense lure. Is the movie as transporting and witty a romantic fantasy as the animated original? Does it fall crucially short? Or is it in some ways better? The answer, at different points in the film, is yes to all three, but the bottom line is this: The new “Beauty and the Beast” is a touching, eminently watchable, at times slightly awkward experience that justifies its existence yet never totally convinces you it’s a movie the world was waiting for.

Related

Emma Watson stars as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast in Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, a live-action adaptation of the studio's animated classic directed by Bill Condon.

‘Beauty and the Beast’: Emma Watson & Cast Bring the Classic Songs to Life

A good animated fairy tale is, of course, more than just a movie — it’s a whole universe. The form was invented by Disney eighty years ago, with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), a film I still think has never been surpassed, and when you watch something as transporting as “Snow White” — or “Bambi,” or “Toy Story,” or “Beauty and the Beast” — every gesture and background and choreographed flourish, from the facial expressions to the drip-drop of water, flows together with a poetic unity. That’s the catchy miracle of great animation.

When you watch the new “Beauty and the Beast,” you’re in a prosaic universe of dark and stormy sets, one that looks a lot like other (stagy) films you’ve seen. The visual design, especially in the Beast’s majestic curlicued castle, is gentrified gothic — Tim Burton de-quirked. At the beginning, when Belle (Emma Watson) walks out of her house and wanders through the village singing “Belle,” that lovely lyrical meet-the-day ode that mingles optimism with a yearning for something more, the shots and beats are all in place, the spirit is there, you can see within 15 seconds that Emma Watson has the perfect perky soulfulness to bring your dream of Belle to life — and still, the number feels like something out of one of those overly bustling big-screen musicals from the late ’60s that helped to bury the studio system. It’s not that the director, Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls,” “The Twilight Saga”), does anything too clunky or square. It’s that the material loses its slapstick spryness when it’s not animated. The sequence isn’t bad, it’s just…standard.

That’s true of most of the first part of the movie, right up until the point when Belle rescues her kindly inventor father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), from the Beast’s castle — where he’s being held prisoner for having assaulted a flower — by trading places with him. Belle, a wistful bookworm, is the odd girl out in her village, and she has already brushed off several encounters with Gaston (Luke Evans), the duplicitous hunk who became a new Disney archetype (in “Frozen,” etc.): the handsome, big-chinned, icky monomaniacal two-faced suitor. On first meeting, however, the Beast seems nearly as dark. He’s a prince who was cursed and turned into a monster for having no love in him, and the best thing about the movie — as well as its biggest divergence from the animated version — is that he’s a strikingly downbeat character, a petulant and morose romantic trapped in a body that makes him feel nothing less than doomed.

He’s played by Dan Stevens, a British actor who out of makeup looks like a bland version of Ryan Gosling, but the makeup and effects artists have done an extraordinary job of transforming him into a hairy hulking figure with ram horns, the face of a saddened lion having an existential meltdown, and the voice of Darth Vader channeling Hugh Grant. Visually, the characterization makes a nod to the scowling-eyed Beast from Jean Cocteau’s immortal “Beauty and the Beast” (1946), but he also comes off as a kind of royal version of the Elephant Man: a melancholy freak trapped in solitude. I loved that for a good long while, he’s a bit of a hard-ass, a man-creature who doesn’t dare to think that Belle could love him. But then, under her gaze, he begins to soften, and his transformation is touching in a more adult way than it was in the animated version. The romance there was benign; here, it’s alive with forlorn longing.

Which is to say, the new “Beauty and the Beast” is not as kid-friendly a movie. It tries to be in certain sequences, notably those featuring Lumière the candelabra (voiced by Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth the pendulum clock (Ian McKellen), and Garderobe the wardrobe (Audra McDonald) — all of whom are basically tactile, live-action animated characters. The “Be Our Guest” musical number scrupulously revives the dancing-plate surreal exuberance of the original, but there the frenetic nuttiness was exquisite. Here it tips between exhilarating and exhausting, because you can feel the special-effects heavy lifting that went into it.

I keep comparing “Beauty and the Beast” to the animated version, which raises a question: Is that what we’re supposed to be doing? Or should the film simply stand on its own? The movie wants to have it both ways, but then, that’s the contradictory metaphysic of reboot culture: We’re drawn in to see the old thing…but we want it to be new. The live-action “Beauty and the Beast” is different enough, and certainly, if you’ve never experienced the cartoon, it’s strong enough to stand on its own. (Josh Gad, incidentally, plays Gaston’s worshipful stooge Le Fou as maximally silly and fawning, but I must have missed the memo where that spells “gay.”) Yet it’s not really that simple, is it? The larger fantasy promoted by a movie like this one is that we’ll somehow see an animated feature “come to life.” And that may be a dream of re-branding — shared by studio and audience alike — that carries an element of creative folly. Animation, at its greatest, is already a glorious imitation of life. It’s not clear that audiences need an imitation of the imitation.

Film Review: 'Beauty and the Beast'

Reviewed at Lincoln Square, New York, March 2, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 129 MIN.

Production

A Walt Disney Studios release of a Walt Disney Pictures, Mandeville Films production. Producers: David Hoberman, Todd Liebmerman. Executive producers: Don Hahn, Tomas Schumacher, Jeffrey Silver.

Crew

Director: Bill Condon. Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos. Camera (color, widescreen): Tobias A. Schliessler. Editor: Virginia Katz.

With

Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci.

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  1. Paula says:

    A little harsh one thinks from the Critic..i do take issue with not child friendly… saw it last night with my 10yr old daughter who still hasn’t stopped talking about it.. she loved it from opening to credits & she wasn’t alone.. wonderful feel good film & true to the original animated version .. with just a little extra that really does bring the story to life.. the acting by all the principal characters was exemplary .. & Really a need to remark on LaFou, he was brilliantly comical (The gay remark is honestly completely uncalled for and less than relevant) more “La Fool” which afterall is the character of the original animated version … Brilliant & a must see…

  2. Jan C says:

    Most thoughtful and on-the-money review I’ve seen so far. One thing I’d add: I’d have enjoyed it more if we’d seen more of Dan Stevens’ acting. The Beast’s face was plunged deep in the uncanny valley, so computer-enhanced that I thought I was watching Polar Express.

  3. Jenny Aghomo says:

    Beauty and the Beast has always been my all time favorite animated Disney movie and much of that was due to the beautiful, upbeat and cleverly created music. Emma Stone lacked the singing abilities to really encapture the character of Beauty. And as far as the Beast, I was slightly disappointed. Luke Evans, who played Gustav has an incredible singing voice and gave an even more incredible performance, but sadly he was a little to old gor the part. I loved
    Josh Gad as La fou. Gay or not he was made for the role. I felt the rest of the cast really saved the movie and the main reason I left feeling that same nostalgic feeling from the first time around.

  4. Sylke says:

    Dan Stevens looks like “a bland version of Ryan Gosling”? Seriously? They don’t look similar at all! Just because there were rumours Gosling was offered the role doesn’t mean Stevens looks like him. Stevens is nothing but “bland”. He’s very handsome and he was really sexy and did a terrific performance in The Guest. Anything but bland.

  5. Fran says:

    And Dan Stevens is dreamy as the Beast. I love his singing voice, his presence even under 40 pounds of costuming, his brilliant smile with Emma Watson in the dance sequence. He was a big draw for me. Such a big talented cast

  6. Fran says:

    Best movie I’ve seen in a very long time. Go see it!!! Classic Disney story telling, a wonderfully talented and sparklingly diverse cast, gorgeous to look at hear. Wasn’t looking forward to what I feared was another over-produced Hollywood blockbuster but this made me feel all the great emotions I had as a kid going to a big movie event. Loved it!! Owen, you’re overthinking it.

  7. Harriet says:

    Beauty and The Beast is an enchanting lively movie . Good music, good acting and good visual effects..Go see it!!

  8. Denny says:

    Is this really Variety?? This article has the worst writing I have ever read!! There must be at least four major contradictions…”monomanical, and two faced,” too many run on sentences, and overall a juvenile tone…who doesn’t know the basic story of “Beauty and the Beast?” I love reading reviews about films I am eager to see, but this is clearly written by a fourth grader.

    • Jan C says:

      Some interesting reaches for word choice in this review, but contradictions? “Monomaniacal” and “two-faced” are not contradictory.

  9. Mc says:

    It kept my attention but there was something lacking. The whole reason for the curse was not strong enough. Belle fell for the Beast too quickly. It played out better in the animated version. The father was great and added depth to the character. I thought the casting of Gustav was too old and should have been a younger man like the animated version. The candelabra stole the show.

  10. Kenneth Wood says:

    Like others, I questioned the casting decision of Emma Watson to play Belle (She didn’t look enough like the animated Belle). However, I just watched Beauty and the Beast last night with family (a March 16 pre-showing). Emma was amazing. She brought so much depth to the role—from sensitivity to heroism. Her performance was so moving, I found myself tearing up three times within the first thirty minutes and many times after that.

    What blew me away unexpectedly was Emma’s singing voice. It was warm, emotional, expressive, powerful and beautiful to listen to. Her relationship with her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) depicted what a loving daughter would sacrifice for her father. Her transformational relationship with the Beast (Dan Stevens), from anger and horror to compassion and love was heartwarming to watch unfold.
    Now that I’ve seen Emma in the role, I couldn’t imagine anyone else in it.

    I might add that the new songs, written for the movie by it’s original composer Alan Menken, contributed richly to the storyline and were every bit as powerful and singable as their forerunners, and the musical orchestration was the best I’ve ever heard on any movie anywhere. Wow!

    Kudos to the screenwriters for creating the best ever rendition of the centuries-old Beauty and the Beast story. And kudos to Emma Watson for bringing Belle to life. She will win you over.

  11. It’s really delusional to think this movie is anything but amazing. By what horrible logic would someone say it we didn’t need it made?

  12. kristina clark says:

    I agree..I am not sure we need to reinvent something that is a positive in our minds..but without seeing it..I wish them luck and am sure there will be some that love it

  13. Anthony says:

    Can’t believe some of the backwards comments on here – a ” weird” vibe/not appropriate 4 children? Where do you people live? YOUR children NEED to see this. Guess you never understood the acceptance message in the movie to start with, it went “straight”
    over your heads.

  14. HenryL says:

    So some geniuses decided to make a Beauty and the Beast not appropriate for children and throw in a gay to boot. Wow. That will only cost the investors about 50 million in gate receipts. Dumb asses.

    • Children don’t NEED homosexuality pushed onto them, especially in a Disney movie.

      • Internet Avenger says:

        Correct madam, they’ve usually figured it out for themselves by 8 years of age. Especially the ones who know they are. Kindly shove your morality lessons, you’re REALLY in the wrong place for that.

  15. Emma watson was offered the role of Mia in La La Land but she preferred so star in The beauty and the beast, also Ryan Gosling was offered the role of The Beast but he choose Sebastian (La La Land) over the Live-Action movie.

    • kristina clark says:

      you have seen the movie?..what does an actors life outside of acting have to do with anything..not sure where the gay thing is coming from?..but if there is an openly gay character that person will speak to many many youth in the world..maybe one sitting in your living room.

  16. Marie says:

    I had a feeling this was going to happen, I saw the trailer and it gave off a weird vibe (espeically the acting).

  17. JoeMcG says:

    We all know that when it comes to milking a “brand” for all it’s worth, Disney under Mr. Eisner wrote the book… and it’s a playbook that has profited well for them over and over ever since, and they’re not beyond exploiting any property to make another dollar. Remember when Pixar said they don’t like to make sequels?

    This is just the latest in a long line of live-action remakes. Should they have done this with Beauty and the Beast? After all, the original was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. Not best animated feature, the first animated feature nominated for Best Picture in 1991. Do you really want to mess with a classic at that level? Would you ever want to remake Casablanca? They seem to have gone out of their way to not offend anyone with this latest version, and I’m sure it will make money, but I think the review nailed it… was it something we really needed? Maybe not as an audience, but it should keep Disney shareholders happy…

    • Malcolm says:

      The article does have it right – was it someing we “need” – but that same question/comment can be made about everything; particularly every piece of entertainment.
      Unless you want all films to be pointedly ‘message-y’ and promote agendas and social change, it should be obvious that many should be allowed to “merely” aspire to be entertaining, transporting and watchable. The review implies that this is true here – though I do like the notion of it being an imitation of an imitation!

      • Kate says:

        Agreed. It sounds like the new version is a rather faithful adaptation of the 1991 version. I’d prefer it if they’d actually veered farther from that movie to make it their own.

  18. So far Disney have made these films in different ways. The reviewer is asking a question that may be moot. As he said, Cinderella, for all its nods, isn’t “just” the animated film in live action. Jungle Book, is as much an adaptation of the source as it is a “remake” and ditches much of the singing. It clearly tries to improve on the animated version.

    There’s more than one way to skin a cat and they are trying them out. So far it is mostly a success and it s by no meas purely nostalgia based.

  19. JaysicaSweet says:

    Awesome…

  20. Remaking old stories for a new generation with few ideas besides use of the emerging technology and a great deal of money adds up to a dearth of imagination and a high risk gamble. The true Beauty and the Beast is “King Kong”.

  21. cadavra says:

    Walt understood branding, but he was adamantly opposed to this sort of strip-mining, especially after follow-ups with the Three Little Pigs flopped. He seldom looked back, only forward, and regardless of the financial rewards, he’d be horrified by the utter lack of innovation in the studio’s current output.

    • Your comment suggests that you know little about their current output at all, which is, as well as very successful, full of original content. (that includes adaptations, which Mr. Disney was, of course very fond of indeed.)

      • cadavra says:

        Oh, really? Shall we take a stroll down this year’s release schedule?

        BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (remake)
        GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2 (sequel)
        PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 5 (sequel)
        CARS 3 (sequel)
        THOR: RAGNAROK (sequel)
        STAR WARS VIII (sequel)

        And looking ahead to 2018:

        PETER PAN (remake)
        WRECK-IT RALPH 2 (sequel)
        A WRINKLE IN TIME (remake)
        AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (sequel)
        HAN SOLO SOLO (prequel)
        THE INCREDIBLES 2 (sequel)
        ANTMAN AND THE WASP (sequel)
        MULAN (remake)
        MARY POPPINS RETURNS (sequel)

        Yeah, you could choke a hippo on all that originality.

  22. Barbara says:

    There have been been at least two live-action versions of “Beauty and the Beast” that I know of — both French. First is the famed Jean Cocteau version in the 30s, and more recently (2014) the film with
    Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel. The 2014 version will be released on March 7 in the NTSC DVD
    format.

  23. Bill says:

    Good review, though in talking about the “novelty” of the presentation, the reviewer does not seem to be aware that a live-action Cinderella preceded this.

    • John G. says:

      Not sure he’s aware of last year’s The Jungle Book, which just won an Oscar on Sunday. Or aware of Maleficent, a recent box office hit. Maybe he’s missed years of this studio’s output? Beauty and the Beast isn’t a novelty and is far from the first live-action adaptation of a Disney animated feature.

      • X Trapnel says:

        He actually mentions the live-action Cinderella in the review. And, of course, Variety are aware of the remakes. What are you talking about?

  24. Jason says:

    What’s wrong with gay people getting married? We pay taxes, same as you. Don’t you think I deserve the same rights and freedoms as you enjoy? Why should I be a second class citizen? I’m not complacent and won’t be categorized just because me having rights makes you feel “uncomfortable” and like you have less rights. It’s not pie! Me having more rights, doesn’t mean you have less. Get over yourself and grow up! I shouldn’t need “permission” from the higher-ups in the first place. I’m not 12!

  25. Marie says:

    How is this agenda “fading”? Not only now gay people can get married but people are demanding more diversity in films.

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