Not surprisingly, Beauty and the Beast enchanted the box office, breaking the record for top domestic opening for a PG film. A nostalgic homage to the beloved 1991 animated Disney film, the 2017 version was destined for greatness. But like many nostalgic do-overs, it fell far short of the original. Attempting to bring Beauty and the Beast to vibrant light, the remake turned out garish, stuffed with unnecessary detail, and marred by the very elements intended to make it better than the original.
Critics have attacked the film for being simultaneously too “slavish” to the original and too novel in the musical numbers. The movie tried to be all things to all people, and the pandering proved very tiresome.
Hints of this fundamental flaw emerged from the marketing phases of the movie. Not only did Director Bill Condon choose notorious feminist Emma Watson (known for her role in the Harry Potter series) to play Belle, but he made the explicit point to announce the introduction of homosexuality in Josh Gad‘s (Frozen, 2013) version of Le Fou. Both Watson and Gad played their roles very well, but there were a few key tweaks to their characters which detracted from the mythical quality of the story.
From the very beginning, the remake acted like it had something to prove. Each scene was stretched out, almost as if to answer “How It Should Have Ended” tongue-in-cheek critiques of the original movie. Addressing “plot holes” from the original, it ended up making them less compelling.
Similarly, the movie tried too hard to fit the Baroque style — especially with excessive amounts of makeup and preposterously ornate dresses and suits. While historically accurate, these styles were distracting. While the movie did mock them briefly, it still opened and closed with artistic styles that seem ridiculous to modern sensibilities.
Many of the couples were interracial which, while a nice sentiment, seemed to be piling on social statements with Belle’s feminism and the now infamous “gay moment.”
Speaking of which, the omnicompetent heroine was also distracting. Emma Watson is Belle at her bookish best, but she’s also a great deal more. A brilliant inventor, she rebels against the culture by teaching girls to read, and she is extremely self-assured. Belle has no real flaw, and therefore no compelling character arch. She’s perfect from the beginning to the end, and she helps to perfect those around her. She’s strong, but not especially relatable, and that weakens the romance later on.
As for the Beast, Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, 2010-2012) brings a great deal of solid acting to the character, and the movie gives this prince a humanizing backstory, but that also detracts from the romance. It is nice to hear a bit more about the Beast’s troubled past, but it also takes away from the moral lesson. The beginning becomes a colorful backdrop, rather than a lesson to teach children to look beyond appearances.
These more complex characters and extra scenes make the original love story harder to believe. While the new Beauty and the Beast includes scenes of Belle and the Beast enjoying poetry together, it turns more than one classic romance scene into a dud. In attempting to bring everything to life, it ends up weakening the romance at the center of the entire story.
In addition to these backstories and ornate embellishments, the new movie throws in extra musical numbers, which do not rise to the level of the originals. The Beast gets his own song (a good idea, if poorly executed), but it proves shallow and out of place.
The changes to original songs make less sense. The simplicity of the 1991 version’s choreography was spot on, and this movie jettisons it for the central and beloved song “Be Our Guest.” In the original version, the dishes danced in ways that fit the different parts of the song. Not so in this version: Lumière (Ewan McGregor, best known for the Star Wars prequels) does not act sad when the music is sad, and the beat-by-beat choreography of the original song yields to flashy special effects with little meaning.
There are a few additions which pleasantly surprise, however. A scene showing Belle’s backstory is very moving, and much of the added dialogue is witty and fun. Both of the central Gaston songs — “Gaston” and “Kill the Beast” — are particularly well-done. Belle’s first iconic song — “Belle” — is nearly perfect, and almost leaves the audience liking the “poor provincial town” better than the garish Baroque castle.
But the movie is also rather undisciplined. Actors cannot make up their minds whether to stick with a French, British, or American accent.
More than anything else, the length is tiresome. As The Atlantic‘s David Sims pointed out, “For a film that feels like a shot-for-shot remake at times, Beauty and the Beast is also surprisingly long, running a hefty 129 minutes to the original’s 84.” While there are a few heartwarming moments, the additions more often distract from the film, rather than enhancing it.
Beauty and the Beast will continue to make money — nostalgia films tend to do rather well, after all. But it’s a garish imitation of the original film, and fails by trying to be all things to all people.