On household items in the Uncanny Valley, animation as a second-class citizen, and the movie industry's most crass business model
Beauty and the Beast Walt Disney Studios
Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, based on a 1991 screenplay by Linda Woolverton
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Mack and Emma Thompson
Rated PG / 2 hours, 9 minutes / 2.35:1
March 17, 2017
(out of four)
Disney is ashamed of itself. It either doesn't know it or won't admit it, but the self-loathing couldn't be any more palpable.
Imagine what it must be like to build your cinematic legacy primarily on animated films, only to later develop a seething contempt for animation. Must be quite an identity crisis. None of the people involved with systematically remaking the company's entire library of animated films would ever admit that they hate animation, or that they at least tacitly hold it in disregard. They would say the new versions are "honoring" the old ones, or something along those lines. But we're all adults here, yeah? You don't go and just re-do all of your own work if you actually have respect for it.
Occasionally you'll see directors remaking their own films - either because they weren't happy with the first version, or they want to open it up to a new audience, or they have a new direction they'd like to take it. Generally speaking, those are one-offs. But imagine a director who decided to remake all of his own movies. Or a novelist who decided to re-write all of her own novels. That's comparable to what Disney is currently doing as their dominant creative initiative. It is the single most crass example of a broader industry model built on re-using old properties, and Bill Condon's Beauty and the Beast can't help but feel crass as a result.
The studio has one selling point it uses to pretend it's doing something new. K it's the same movie with most of the same scenes but this time it's LIVE ACTION except only sort of and sometimes not really at all. There is such contempt for animation that last year they made a movie that was entirely computer animated except for one character, and they referred to this animated movie as "live-action." (Psychologists refer to this as "denial.") That these are all handsomely mounted productions only makes it worse. There's real quality to these movies - or to co-opt a famous Pauline Kale quote, these movies reek of quality - which gives them a bigger and more expensive canvas to prove how utterly soulless they are. Funny how big budgets and high production values can shine such a light on their own vulgarity.
It would be one thing - a defensible thing - if this movie, or any of the others, were simply a new take on existing material. A "remake" in name only. There were countless Beauty and the Beast adaptations prior to 1991 and there have been plenty since. Why not take another stab at it? But no: This one is specifically, and exclusively, "based" on Disney's own existing version of the tale. It is wholly a reiteration of their own ideas. These movies - this one and Cinderella and The Jungle Book, and more than likely the upcoming The Lion King and Dumbo and Aladdin and Mulan - are not reimaginings. Imagining doesn't play much of a role at all. If any. (What, exactly, is being imagined? Imagine if we re-staged all those memorable scenes we already made, but with real people? Why, what an outrageous flight of creative fancy indeed!)
Built into the fabric of Disney's endeavor is the presumption that live-action is inherently an improvement on animation. (If not, what would be the purpose?) This is not an act of replacement, exactly, but there's the clear insinuation that, hey, we're doing it better now. We're doing it for real this time. The studio is essentially treating its animated classics as beta versions. That isn't necessarily true of remaking any animated film in live-action - there may indeed be honest motivations for doing so, a desire to reimagine a story with the capabilities and possibilities offered specifically by the live-action medium. But Beauty and the Beast is, instead, a conscious, deliberate reproduction of the 1991 film. Reproduction is its very guiding principle. It's similar, philosophically, to older movies undergoing 3D post-conversion, or black-and-white films being subjected to colorization. Condon's Beast is essentially the animated version post-converted into live-action. (Including all-new, previously deleted scenes!) Contempt for animation? Clear as day. Get back to me when Disney announces big-budget, hand-drawn animated remakes of The Apple Dumpling Gang or Pirates of the Caribbean or The Straight Story and perhaps I'll revise my statement.
As for the specifics of this movie ... really, why bother? If you're familiar with the animated film, you're familiar with this one. That song you like? It's in here. Your favorite scenes? Yeah, them too. But in mostly labored versions that stink of people over-exerting themselves trying to recreate somebody else's magic. The irony is, the sheer effort to be similar to the '91 film only proves how badly it - and specifically, its live-action format - does the exact things that animation does so well. Remember how exuberantly expressive Lumière the candelabra, Cogsworth the clock, Mrs. Potts the teapot were 26 years ago? Well, these new incarnations are so drab and unremarkable as to undermine their entire visual purpose. The film by default holds so close to the rules and limits of physical reality that turning these household items into living beings leaves us with the most ineffectual result possible. A houseful of highly accomplished effects with no visual personality whatsoever; a movie full of characters who communicate virtually nothing. (The Beast is similarly afflicted, the CGI enhancements constantly strangling whatever semblance of a performance Dan Stevens is trying to give - motion-capture or otherwise - and whose proximity to realistic features and movement only winds up coming across as unexpressive and off-putting. Imagine trying to forge a romantic connection with Aslan from the live-action Chronicles of Narnia and you get the general idea.)
A different symptom of the same disease extends to the other characters as well. The film, to its credit, at least nailed the casting of Belle, as Emma Watson effortlessly embodies the combination of magnetic charm and fearless autonomy that the story - in particular its central romance - relies upon. But elsewhere, it keeps coming back to the problem of translating personality from one medium to another - meticulously reproducing a character from animation to live-action, detail by detail, and expecting the two versions to come across the same way. Which brings me to Luke Evans' take on Gaston ...
I mean, in a vacuum, it's an adequate performance. Evans is a perfectly fine actor. But the character he's going for is written - in both dialogue and song - as a clone of the 1991 version, give or take a few muscles. That Gaston was a falsely but undeniably charismatic buffoon. His charms were shallow but they were still evident, and added up to a delightful alpha-male caricature. Evans' version is decidedly not charming, nor does he possess any sort of overpowering charisma that would suggest this small provincial town - and all of its eligible ladies - would be under his spell. It worked so easily in the animated version because Gaston was such a larger-than-life figure. He was that film's only true cartoon, and that in and of itself said as much as needed to be said about the character. Evans is not larger-than-life, and doesn't approach the role with much (if any) sense of comedy; his line deliveries are gruff and raspy; his chiseled handsomeness always has a serious, rough edge to it. There's no joy in his absurd masculinity; his bluster is boring. (You know who should have played this role? Dwayne The Rock Johnson, that's who. Accept no substitutes.)
Comedy, wth Gaston and elsewhere, is a nagging stumbling block throughout the film. Which is to say that Condon - the prestigious hack behind Dreamgirls, Kinsey, The Fifth Estate and exactly 40 percent of the Twilight franchise - has no idea how to do it. He cannot land a joke. In fact he seemingly goes out of his way to smother the jokes that were laid at his feet. Key examples: Two of the funniest lines from Howard Ashman's original lyrics - "I use antlers in all of my decorating" from "Gaston" and "Don't believe us? Ask the dishes!" from "Be Our Guest" - are completely wasted by Condon. As if he's not even listening to the lyrics and didn't realize there was a joke there. To say nothing of the storming-the-castle sequence, which this version blows out into a more elaborately conceived, comically violent setpiece staged without any feel for physical comedy or comic timing.
Condon asked for this. He, and Disney, and everyone involved in the production asked to be compared to Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise and Linda Woolverton's example. They asked for it when they decided to use an existing version as their sole prototype, and diverge from it as little as possible. They asked for it when they decided to use their massive resources - $160 million worth, by reported estimates - for the privilege of repeating themselves. Beauty and the Beast passes the time, but no one needed it. All that money thrown at it and its primary accomplishment is reminding people how much they enjoy a different movie.