Have you ever gone back to your old elementary school? Taken a moment to walk down the halls and reflect on your memories of the place compared to what the reality is? That’s kind of like what watching Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is like. It’s almost exactly what you remember from the cartoon, but everything is oddly proportioned. Some things seem smaller, the new additions don’t quite fit. There’s a bunch of newfangled technology that seems impressive, but also doesn’t look like it belongs in this environment. You know you’ve been there before, but nothing feels right either. It’s a weird thing that can be disorienting. Even at its best Beauty and the Beast is a surreal exercise in cinematic déjà vu that is likely to please kids but unsettle adults who grew up with the original. It’s not so much bad as it is…strange.
The whole thing is very odd. When you look at a film like Maleficent you can see a real compelling reason for that film to exist. The filmmakers have completely switched the perspective from the original film and fairy tale and they’re doing something brand new. Even last year’s remake of The Jungle Book seems to have a clear reason for existing—we can take this really impressive CG technology that we now have to create a more realistic looking version of the film and use that to tell a more grounded, mature version of the Rudyard Kipling story. I’m not sure what reason exists to have this particular version of Beauty and the Beast. This version feels like a plagiarized copy of the original that has more in common with Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (and a lot of the same problems) than it does with Maleficent or The Jungle Book.
There are moments in this version that shine. A few places where they diverted from the source material to bring in some new story elements and songs. Maurice, Belle’s father, is slightly reimagined and, as played by Kevin Kline, he’s become a much more interesting character. He’s a toy-maker rather than an oddball inventor. At the beginning of the film he’s got a short number called How Does a Moment Last Forever that I quite liked, at least when Kevin Kline sang it. Beast, played by Dan Stevens (Legion, Downton Abbey) has a new song, Evermore, which is quite effective at articulating Beast’s love for Belle. I would also add that for all the hand wringing about the sexuality of Josh Gad’s LeFou, that’s actually one of the more interesting aspects of the film.
But the rest? Even when it’s not bad it’s just plain weird. That feels like a lazy cop out of a description but it’s really the best one I’ve got. There are sections of this film that play out almost exactly the way the cartoon does. It’s almost shot for shot, beat for beat exactly the same. But at the same time it’s…different. The pacing of the songs is slightly off, but just a little bit. The articulation of a line of dialogue is shifted a little bit. It’s the same words, but they’re being spoken a different way. Sometimes, the film will veer off into a different direction for a moment but then it will snap back to what the cartoon was. One example that illustrates this really well and also highlights another problem of the film is the prologue.
In the original cartoon the prologue was performed by the legendary David Ogden Stiers who also voiced Cogsworth. In this version the prologue is performed by Emma Thompson who also plays Mrs. Potts. The dialogue she is reciting is EXACTLY the dialogue that David Ogden Stiers was given to read in the original. Word. For. Word. Except when it’s not. Dropped into the middle of the prologue is a bit about how the townspeople used to come to the castle for parties and were there the night that the Enchantress transformed the prince into Beast. Oh, but the Enchantress put a spell on them too so that they would forget all about Beast and the castle. In the span of a few sentences the filmmakers introduce a new idea that helps expand the scope of the film (introducing a lavish party and lots of guests and costumes) while also introducing a problem the original film never had—if all of these people used to party with this prince, why does nobody know about the Beast—and then clumsily tries to write the problem away. Later the film also tries to introduce a minor subplot that explains why the Enchantress would have punished Beast’s servants as well as Beast himself. I’m mystified as to why the film needed to spend time on this, but they did. I guess it makes the Enchantress seem like less of a jerk?
One area that pains me to bring up, but I think is a necessary criticism of the film, is Emma Watson’s voice. Like the rest of the film there’s something not quite right with it. Her voice sounds artificial and processed (two words that could describe a fair amount of the proceedings). It’s really a shame because the rest of her performance is pretty good. She’s doing what she can with limited material. There was clearly an effort to update the gender politics of the original. Positive marks here for trying, although it’s a bit clumsy and muddled. Watson is doing a good job with what she’s got. But her singing really did not work for me.
Overall this film feels like there wasn’t a clear, driving idea behind it. The production is beautiful, sumptuous even, and the artistry on display is top notch in terms of the CG, but the overall feel of the film is off kilter. Nothing feels like it fits. The whole thing feels like a grown adult trying to sit at one of those tiny tables they have in kindergarten classes, knees up around their shoulders, grimacing with discomfort, hoping the little chair underneath it doesn’t collapse.