Disney has always been the master cinematic recycler, from the pre-VHS era, when it reissued its classic animated features on a staggered schedule, through its employment of limited purchase periods for them in home video format, to its current program simply to remake them in live-action form, whether on stage or screen, or both. It’s a technique that can be traced back to 1996 with “101 Dalmatians,” but of late it has become a main part of the studio’s output, though until now it has involved substantial changes from the original (“Maleficent,” “Alice in Wonderland”) and/or derived from lesser past efforts (“The Jungle Book” and “Cinderella,” both of which also differed in dropping the songs entirely).
Now, however, we have a remake of an undeniable classic—1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which had already been reworked for Broadway, and it’s more a direct copy than a remake. There is padding, especially in terms of material involving the heroine and her father, as well as a trio of new songs. But while that adds some forty minutes to the running-time, it leaves much of the picture a virtual frame-by-frame duplicate of the original. Since the first film was so good, one might ask, what’s the problem? And to a certain extent, the answer would be there isn’t any, except for the fact that while the new version is engaging enough, it’s inferior to the original, and so basically unnecessary—unless your main interest is on the studio’s budgetary bottom line. So the correct question might instead be: apart from the cash flow, what’s the point?
Not much, as it turns out, because this new “Beauty,” while boasting all the sumptuousness the studio and a huge effects crew can muster, turns out to be a middling affair. It begins with an opulent new prologue in which the arrogant prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed in the middle of a big ballroom dance by an old woman named Agathe (Hattie Morahan) whom he refuses to help, and turned into the titular Beast. That’s followed by further added backstory that details the relationship between Belle (Emma Watson)—the spunky village lass with a distinctly modern independent streak and a love of books—and her father Maurice (Kevin Kline), a somewhat befuddled but lovable crafter of elaborate mechanical doodads who has never explained how or why her mother disappeared from their lives.
It’s her dad’s disappearance while on what amounts to a business trip that leads first him and then Belle to the Beast’s castle, where the anthropomorphic figures of the candelabra Lumiere (voiced by Ewan McGregor), the clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), the teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson)—along with her teacup son Chip (Nathan Mack)—and the wardrobe Madame de Garderobe (Audra McDonald) make their appearance, along with a few others similarly transformed (the maid Plumette, voiced by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who’s now a feather duster, and court composer Cadenza–a new character voiced by Stanley Tucci, who’s now a harpsichord). Lumiere, Cogsworth and Potts, of course, spearhead the effort to encourage the mean-tempered Beast, an elaborate melding of CGI and Stevens, to mellow out in order to persuade Belle to love him and thus break the curse that afflicts them all before time runs out.
The other side of the coin, of course, is represented by narcissistic villain Gaston (Luke Evans), who wants Belle for his own and will ultimately threaten both Maurice and the Beast. One of the most publicized alterations of the picture is that his ultra-loyal chum LeFou (Josh Gad) is now depicted as unmistakably gay, pining after Gaston as much as Gaston wants Belle—a bit of business that’s played, in truth, about as subtly as closeted friends were portrayed in comedies of the thirties and forties but in this day and age should surely be a ho-hum matter rather than the horrifying scandal some have made of it. (Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that no such hand-wringing has resulted from the fact that when Plumette and Garderobe are turned back into their human states, they’re black. Today’s Disney has simply left its Uncle Remus past behind and exalts diversity. Live with it.)
Apart from the fact that director Bill Condon, whose “Gods and Monsters” (1998) was so masterful a treatment of a story with gay underpinnings, could have handled the LeFou subplot with more deftness (Gad’s oversized personality doesn’t help matters in that regard), he manages the demands of shepherding such a big enterprise efficiently. He obviously loves old-fashioned musical numbers, and crafts those here as he might have done for the stage; most come off well—except when the effects team goes into overdrive. That tendency certainly afflicts the show-stopper “Be Our Guest,” in which the explosion of animated joy of the 1991 picture becomes a chaotic jumble of clunky CGI that instead resembles the galumphing excess of Disney’s recent “Alice in Wonderland” extravaganzas or “Oz the Great and Powerful.”
Overall, in fact, the effects are okay but not outstanding. The most problematic of them, unfortunately, is the rendering of the Beast, whose generally stiff movements suggest motion-capture work that doesn’t quite come off. That hobbles Stevens’ performance; he’s a canny actor, as such dissimilar efforts as “Downton Abbey,” “The Guest” and his TV series “Legion” well demonstrate, but little of his charisma survives in this incarnation, even when he’s shown in human form. But he’s not unique in this: the household characters lack the vibrancy of their animated counterparts, too, although the voicework by the likes of McGregor, Thompson and McKellen is certainly committed.
The un-CGI humans fare better. Watson makes a properly confident Belle, and Kline puts his considerable Broadway experience to good use. The biggest surprise is probably Evans, who captures some of the arrogant fun of Gaston as well as the malevolence one would have expected him to convey. Gad does his semi-swish routine with his customary exuberance, and the rest of the cast model their fairy-tale costumes (designed by Jacqueline Durran) decently enough while doing what the script demands of them. The musical numbers are nicely done, with expert orchestrations and excellent singing—though one suspects some dubbing for the actors might be involved in the latter. The cinematography by Tobias Schliessler and production design by Sarah Greenwood are also praiseworthy—at least as viewed in 2D format, without the darkening of 3D—but there are moments when one wishes that editor Virginia Katz had hustled things along a bit more quickly.
To return to the bottom line, however—which is, after all, what this “Beauty and the Beast” is all about—Disney will reap a huge profit from it despite its high cost. But in future years when families want to experience the story again, the smart money says that it will be the DVD of the 1991 film that they’ll reach for.