Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast

A new live action version from Disney clears up some plot points but takes few risks

Beauty and the Beast
Directed by Bill Condon
With Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson

The live action version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast offers just enough new elements to make it worthwhile, but overall plays it very safe by sticking close to the original. It manages to work for both adults and children on different levels, but there is not much point to see it unless you have kids to bring to it.

The 1991 animated version of Beauty and the Beast led to a stage musical, and now a live action film. It is not fully clear if the live action version is meant to be a rehash of the cartoon or the stage version.

While there is no question the 1991 film was animated, it is a bit of stretch to say the 2017 version is live action. There are actors, but they interact with so much CGI that it is still much in the realm of a cartoon animation.

One good thing the new version does is that if fixes some potholes in the overall time line and also answers some other questions that had been firing up social media chat rooms for 25 years such as where is Belle's mother, and why nobody in the town knows there is a castle ruin nearby.

The story, of course, comes from the slightly scary fairytale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, which has been told countless times.

The new version tries with some success to make it an empowering tale for young women, showing Belle (played by Emma Watson) as someone who rejects the stereotypes that are offered to her and does things her own way. She likes to read, even though that is not encouraged in the 18th century French village that she lives in. She invents things to make life better, and tries to pass her skills on to younger people.

Belle also wants to decide her own future and rejects the advances of a self-impressed buffoon of an ex-soldier named Gaston (Luke Evans).

Emma Watson always seems smart, no matter what role she is in. Her knowing smile, which she can't seem to ever get rid of, puts her above everything. For Belle, it was perfect casting. Whether Belle is a true feminist icon or a victim of Stockholm syndrome is beyond the scope of this review and for others to debate. She is by far the best part of he film, though.

Much has been made of this version having the first “out of the closet” gay character in a Disney film. That perhaps overstates it. Josh Gad plays LeFou, a sidekick to Gaston. It is sort of stereotype in costume dramas that villains are depicted with some gay mannerisms. LeFou isn't that much out of line with previous cartoon and costume drama henchmen. There are perhaps one or two lines of dialogue that an adult might catch, but nothing really shocking. It would have broken more ground if the gay character wasn't a villain, and if he wasn't someone to in the end be ridiculed.

Gaston and LeFou are set up to be unlikeable and unworthy of Belle's attention. They achieve this quite easily with very cartoonish performances.

The main part of the story involves Belle staying at the hidden castle of the Beast (Dan Stevens). The Beast is a bit of a letdown, as he mostly lacks the scary side that makes the story work. He is seen covered in fur for most of the film, and has bad table manners, but underneath it all is not a bad person. The transformation is not as dramatic as it might be, and that weakens the overall film.

Kevin Kline turns up as Belle's father, Maurice, and the smallish role does not give him a whole lot to do bit he handles it with professional aplomb. He is a bumbling inventor of some sort, and like the other actors perhaps overacts too much.

Many of the actors in the credits are mostly seen as objects, such as Ewan McGregor as Lumière, a talking candelabra or Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, a mantel clock. These various animated characters bring a bit of life to the film, and are sure to amuse the younger viewers. The film at this point becomes half animation and half live action, and the animations steals the show from the live actors.

The the Beast's castle is an impressive set, but the French town where the action starts is a bit unconvincing, perhaps slightly too small and way too clean. The film is a musical, and the songs at times are more of a distraction than a benefit, as well.

There are a lot of good things in Beauty and the Beast, but it also plays it very safe. The same people who liked the cartoon version will appreciate it, but it seems very much like an attempt to cash in one more time on the success of the cartoon and subsequent musical.

Fans of the original story might be more satisfied with one of the darker tellings such as the 1946 French version called La Belle et la Bête by Jean Cocteau or the obscure 1978 Czechoslovak version called Panna a netvor by director Juraj Herz.

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