Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 4, 2017)
When Disney put out a live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland, it did good business and launched a new trend. Through 2016, the studio then produced four more films in this vein, and except for Pete’s Dragon, all of them turned into hits.
None of which prepared anyone for 2017’s Beauty and the Beast. The four successful live-action remakes all made US receipts in the $200 million to $300 million range, but Beast blew away those totals. It topped out over $500 million in the US and cruised past the $1.2 billion mark total worldwide.
So don’t expect Disney to bail on live-action remakes anytime soon. The 2017 Beast follows the same story as the 1991 original, and it starts with a prologue that tells us how a handsome but arrogant young prince gets physically mutated into a beast.
An enchantress gives him a specific period of time in which he must find true love, an idea that seems far-fetched given his furry appearance. As part of the deal, all of the prince’s servants got turned into household objects, and the group appears destined to live out their lives in unusual forms.
The film then moves ahead a few years and lands us in a small French village. There we meet Belle (Emily Watson), an intelligent, lively and beautiful young woman who feels constricted among the narrow minds in her provincial town.
Town hunk Gaston (Luke Evans) sets his romantic sights on Belle, largely because none of the other women seem quite as lovely as she. However, Belle feels no interest whatsoever in the crude, crass, and self-absorbed lunkhead.
On the way toward a market to sell his wares, Belle’s toy-maker father Maurice (Kevin Kline) gets lost and then attacked by wolves. Out of desperation, he ends up at a gloomy castle, where the Beast (Robby Benson) holds him captive. Maurice’s horse Phillippe manages to gallop back to the family home, where his presence alerts Belle that a problem occurred.
Belle sets out to find Maurice, and when she does, she strikes a deal with the Beast: to spare her father, she trades places with him. The castle’s staff – as highlighted by Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) – all hope that she will be their master’s true love. This will turn them human again, but they need to coach Beast through a rough start to set the pair on the path to romance.
The remainder of Beast essentially follows this road, as complications ensue due to the actions of Gaston. He still wants Belle, and unless she marries him, he’ll get Maurice tossed in the loony bin.
This threat ruptures the Belle/Beast romance and threatens the affected characters’ return to human form, as Belle doesn’t know they’re under some time pressure. Indeed, Belle isn’t aware that the Beast is human and everyone will turn back if the couple falls in love.
When I mentioned earlier that the 2017 Beast followed the same story as the 1991 version, I meant that pretty literally. If you compare the synopsis above to the one in my review of the animated edition, you’ll see they’re nearly identical, as the 2017 film does little to deviate from the prior flick’s template.
Because of that, I skipped the 2017 Beast during its theatrical run. I loved the 1991 film and just couldn’t muster the energy to see what appeared to be such a close remake. Whereas movies like Maleficent and the live-action Alice in Wonderland tried to do something different with their stories, the 2017 Beast’s advertising made it look like a carbon copy.
Did the trailers lie? Not really – while the 2017 film expands on the source, it still offers a fairly close remake.
That restricts its appeal, as I think the 2017 Beast should do more to become its own movie. As noted, the prior Disney live-action efforts managed to reflect the animated efforts, but they still turned into new experiences. That becomes much less true with Beast, as it feels more like an “extended cut” of the original.
That’s because the 2017 film runs 45 minutes longer than the 1991 flick. The extra running time means new sequences – or more typically, scenes that get additions in the 2017 version.
For instance, our introduction to the Prince goes longer here. In the 2017 film, he hosts a party, so we see some of that event before the beggar woman enters the tale. We also eventually spend some time with the Prince as a young man, learn about Belle’s childhood and get a few new songs.
Other sequences simply expand production numbers and other scenes. Songs go longer – like “Gaston” – and get different/added dialogue.
Additional aspects of the 2017 Beast alter elements from the original. As depicted here, Maurice offers a much more down to earth character. Whereas he seemed like a scatterbrain in the animated film, the live-action Maurice becomes much more “normal”.
That choice leads to a few changes in the story. For example, the animated Gaston dealt with Maurice’s claims of a Beast in a different manner, and this creates an alternate story branch not in the original - even if it still comes back Maurice’s threatened imprisonment anyway.
All of these factors give the 2017 Beast a mildly different spin on the material, but I don’t think it’s enough. The 2017 film just seems so similar to the original that I don’t get its appeal.
Though the movie includes a good cast, I don’t feel especially impressed with them here, and Watson leads the list. To be honest, I think she peaked as an actor around 2002.
Watson did very well as a child in the first couple of Harry Potter films, but I don’t feel she managed to grow as a performer over the years. The Hermione we saw in 2011 was pretty much the same one we saw in 2002, and I don’t get the impression that Watson boasts much dramatic range.
Because of this, Watson’s Belle feels like a minor riff on Hermione. Belle seems a little less smug, but as played by Watson, she feels like a branch on the Hermione tree, and she fails to bring much verve or personality to the role. The animated Belle showed much greater dimensionality and intelligence than Watson’s bland take.
The others do better, though Evans seems too intelligent and too small for Gaston. He can’t quite imbue the character with the necessary sense of moronic self-importance, and for a guy supposed to be “roughly the size of a barge” – he offers pretty average proportions instead of the superman we need.
Stevens proves able but forgettable as Beast. While he fares better than Watson, I don’t think he adds much personality to the role – no, he doesn’t impersonate Robby Benson from the animated version, but he also can’t make the part his own.
The same goes for the castle staff, most of whom do essentially seem to imitate the cast from the 1991 version. That seems like a mistake – if you hire actors as talented as Thompson, McKellen and McGregor, why not let them forge their own takes on the roles?
Which comes right back to the film’s biggest flaw: it gives us very little I could call “new”. On its own, Beauty and the Beast creates a reasonably likable experience, but it never creates it own identity. That leaves it as a lackluster recreation.