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.
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.