I must preface this review with saying that Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite Disney animated films, second only to The Little Mermaid, so I had high hopes for the live-action Disney Beauty and the Beast. Unfortunately, it did not quite live up to my admittedly lofty expectations.
Obviously, this new live action film, directed by Bill Condon, is based on the 1991 Disney animated film and not Jean Cocteau’s 1964 Le Belle et la Bête. Condon’s film follows the 1991 film very closely in telling a musically-driven story of a young woman from a small French village who is taken captive by a beast in his enchanted castle. There is one notable departure from the animated version. In this one, as in the 1946 film, Belle requests that her father bring her back a rose from his travels. This is how the father is captured by the Beast, because the Beast accuses him of stealing. That is the only nod to Cocteau’s film that I noted.
Beauty and the Beast is an entertaining film. It is, for the most part, well cast. Kevin Kline is especially a delight as Belle’s father, Maurice, and he and Emma Watson’s Belle have a charming chemistry. Characters that are flat in the animated version turn up more round in this one--for example, much ado has been made of the hint that Gaston’s sidekick, LeFou [Josh Gad] is gay. More than that, though, LeFou is given more dimension in the form of an inner moral conflict. Maurice is given a past and a dead wife, and some of the enchanted castle staff are given spouses. Overall, the film does a good job at rounding out the story and characters.
One of the best upgrades was giving Belle a little more spunk. I’m sure the producers were well aware of the Stockholm Syndrome criticisms of the ‘91 film, and they seem to have taken pains to combat that. Belle actively tries to escape, she’s a little more feisty and less helpless. There is also more time dedicated to organically building a relationship between Belle and Beast.
Now for the bad. The most glaring black mark on the film, for me, is that Emma Watson’s voice is so obviously auto-tuned that it’s distracting. Luckily, that’s not a problem with any of the other characters, but it makes her lack even more obvious. I’m a little bit confused as to why this was even a problem. In some of the best classic musicals, stars’ singing voices were dubbed over. Maybe the practice is seen as insulting or gauche now, but I’d prefer that to what we hear in Beauty and the Beast.
And, unfortunately, Watson’s voice isn’t the only thing that’s lacking. Her performance isn’t great either and she’s not alone. Beast, while he looks and sounds good, is oddly inexpressive. There is an overall lack of energy and expression in many of the characters, both live action and CGI, which is surprising given the number of talented actors in the film and the CGI talent we’ve seen from Disney in the past. So, while the movie looks gorgeous [even if some of the shots are too close up or move too fast to see much], it comes across as a little bland.
And finally, something that I’ve gotten increasingly curmudgeonly about: the movie is too long. The live action film is longer than the animated one by 45 minutes, and much of what is added is not only unnecessary, but boring. Belle’s trip back to Paris with Beast to explore her past, anything involving the enchantress whose role is significantly increased, Gaston’s more sinister and violent actions--I think the idea here was to add some depth but it doesn’t work. There are also 4 new songs by Alan Menken, who composed the songs for the animated version. Unfortunately, Menken seems to have lost his touch because the new songs drag just as much as most of the other added material.
Overall, Beauty and the Beast is not at all a bad movie, but I was hoping for something a little bit more. I think there was a chance to do something exciting given how much moviemaking has progressed, but that is not what happened. This is a film that is very similar to the animated version with a similar charm, but with more bloat. I still recommend seeing it, especially if you are a fan of the animated version. But maybe try to keep your expectations a little lower than mine were.