Beauty and the Beast Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans. Directed by Bill Condon. Rated PG. Opens Friday citywide.
Disney’s ever-increasing plan to cannibalize its animated catalog (see sidebar) continues apace with Beauty and the Beast, the first live-action (or partially live-action) remake to fully embrace the musical structure of its source material. While the recent versions of Cinderella and The Jungle Book featured small amounts of music from their animated inspirations, Beauty and the Beast goes all in, not only using all of the songs from the beloved 1991 film, but also adding a few new ones (the better to garner Oscar nominations).
But as has been the case with all of Disney’s live-action updates, newer and shinier and bigger does not equal better, and the state-of-the-art special effects, famous stars and 40 extra minutes of running time don’t constitute an upgrade. If anything, they drain much of the charm from the movie, rendering expressive cartoon designs as hyper-detailed, antiseptic computer effects, bloating a simple fairy tale into a plodding narrative complete with dead parents and placing some of Disney’s most memorable songs alongside mediocre new compositions.
The story remains the same: Bookish but beautiful village girl Belle (Emma Watson) is kidnapped by a cursed prince (Dan Stevens, mostly performing via motion capture) and held in his remote castle, where she eventually falls in love with this man stuck inside a monster’s body. Her belligerent, buffoonish would-be suitor Gaston (Luke Evans) leads a lynch mob against the beast, mild peril ensues and everyone lives happily ever after. The beast’s curse extends to the staff at his lavish estate, who’ve been turned into household objects, and who push for Belle to fall in love with their master so the curse can be lifted.
Along the way the characters sing all of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman’s fabulous songs from the original movie, plus a few new ones penned by Menken and Tim Rice. While the cast of mostly non-singers performs adequately, none of the renditions match up to the originals. Watson, experienced at acting alongside CGI to be inserted later thanks to her years in the Harry Potter franchise, holds together plenty of scenes in which she’s the only human character, but her performance is more determined than captivating. The romance between Belle and the beast is awkward not only for its creepy coercive undertones, but also because it’s hard for a human actor and a CGI creation to have believable chemistry.
The entire movie is similarly stiff and lifeless, even as it looks like a technical marvel. Director Bill Condon brought warmth and style to his previous musical, the joyous Dreamgirls, but here he struggles to properly energize the material. Everyone does their job to fuel the Disney machine, and the result is another tolerable brand extension rather than a transportive cinematic experience.