Belle is a young woman who is taken prisoner by a Beast in his castle in exchange for the freedom of her father Maurice. Despite her fears, she befriends the castle’s enchanted staff and she learns to look beyond the Beast’s exterior to recognize the true heart and soul of the human Prince within. Meanwhile, a hunter named Gaston is on the loose to take Belle for himself and later intends to hunt down the Beast at any cost.
Disney’s mandate to take their back catalogue and refresh it with the help of modern technology is hardly an original premise.
Remember when Compact Disc technology was a new thing? Probably not. Music fans had to upgrade their beloved Vinyl LPs and Cassette Tapes to hear their favourite albums “like never before, in crystal clear digital sound”.
In Disney’s case however, it’s not just updating their library of classic films, “remastering” them, it’s “remaking” them and realising a new vision for them that will most likely continue through their entire collection.
In this the studio is on familiar ground, having created a lucrative business releasing DVD versions of film and videotape titles in strictly limited windows “from the vault”, and as any parent knows, owning these films to play over and over again makes them worth their weight in gold.
But actually remaking an entire film from scratch is a costly business, and one that only bears doing if it delivers a financial reward. What impact this has on the cultural heritage of the catalogue is too early to say, but we won’t have long to wait before we can deliver a verdict with 22 more remakes on their way.
Since the live action remake twenty years ago of the 1961 hit 101 Dalmations, which was the highest grossing family film in 1995, it has taken a long time for the studio to commit to reinventing the wheel. Some of the films that have received the remake treatment include The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent (more of a spin off) and Into The Woods (which is technically a musical adaptation.)
Disney’s most recent success story is Cinderella, originally a masterpiece of 1950’s animation, remade in 2015 with admirable results.
In that case the director was Kenneth Branagh who brought with him a cache of credibility having helmed numerous Shakespearean adaptations. By that stage too, he had proven his ability to handle the stuff of modern pop culture with his direction of the fantastic Thor in 2011.
Mulan, The Little Mermaid, Snow White and The Lion King are the next titles in line for an update and it is understandable that not every single entry can match the beloved esteem of the animated version.
Which brings us to Beauty and the Beast.
I LOVE the 1991 animation, a highlight of the Disney Renaissance and a truly charming film.
There is something so innocent in Belle’s love for her father, and his love for her. Their influence on each other with her inventiveness and thirst for knowledge and self-improvement a testament to his single parenting skills.
Belle is her own person, shaking off public perception of her quirks where her fellow townsfolk think she is odd for reading books and defying convention for wanting to be an independent woman.
Belle’s modern equivalent could be Taylor Swift with her ability to Shake it off when viewed as peculiar by the village inhabitants and of course her conduct when she encounters the titular Beast who needs a woman to soothe his savageness.
Belle’s transformation from a daughter to a young woman is so deftly accomplished in the 1991 film, and such a great role model for my own 9 year old daughter to be familiar with, that any take on this classic is going to require some heavy lifting.
So the positives then – I think the casting is spot on. Emma Watson can act. She can sing and has a truly endearing face and the actress successfully evolves in the role to what is required of her in a most satisfying way.
So too Luke Evans as the vain, and actually revolting Gaston, is a performance he relishes and with any story only as good as it’s villain, he fits the character perfectly.
Belle’s father Maurice, played by Kevin Kline is also a great fit. And Josh Gad as Gaston’s offsider Le Fou brings a new element by allowing this sidekick character to pine for Gaston to return his unrequited love.
The set design and costumes are stunning, from the opening scene ballroom chandeliers to Belle’s village and its inhabitants and The Beasts magnificent and spooky castle, every detail feels authentic and used. At times I felt as if I were watching a more family friendly Les Miserables.
The CGI characters are embellished in a lively fashion by Ewan McGregor (Lumiere the candelabra), Emma Thompson (Mrs Potts the teapot) and Sir Ian McKellen (Cogsworth the clock).
The script is full of gags, both new and old, and the story for the most part hums along.
However, peaking behind the velvet curtains, there are elements that detract from making this as good as one would hope for.
I could not once determine if The Beast was a CGI or hair and makeup creation, and this seems a shame as Dan Stevens does a decent job of communicating the creatures anguish at his potential life sentence for his harsh judgement of the old beggar/enchantress who curses him at the start of the film. I wanted to get a better sense that I was watching a cursed human inhabit the role and not a computer hybrid.
Director Bill Condon feels like an odd choice from an artistic sense. I walked out of his last film Mr Holmes, in part as I had a conflicting screening that took precedence and in part as it felt too dull to endure to the completion.
His previous film before that Sherlock story – The Fifth Estate – garnished woeful reviews pointing to the lack of spark in what should have been a remarkable true life story.
Similarly his direction of the Twilight Saga Breaking Dawn parts 1 and 2 was panned for being slow and joyless.
In B&TB he takes up more time than is necessary, particularly in light of the fact the original ran at 82 minutes and his cut bloats out to 129 minutes, too long for restless kids to sit still.
But ultimately these remakes are not for the kids, they are about bringing the kids who loved the animated versions back to the cinema as young adults and parents to indulge in Disney’s most valuable offering – Nostalgia.
Disney also use their considerable commercial clout to advocate for diversity with the inclusion of different races and sexual preferences in key characters, which, while admirable also feels a little shoe-horned and pandering to the sentiments of the current climate. It also feels like a dangerous precedent as it raises the question of whether these are purely token gestures rather than smart choices for a film maker. I’m not black and I’m not gay, so perhaps I’m not the right person to make a call about what is appropriate in terms of inclusiveness.
I just know as a member of the audience viewing the film, Le Fou’s campness felt utilised for laughs as opposed to any greater statement. More jarring still was his final shot dancing with a woman at the climactic celebratory ball.
No doubt, like Twilight, this will be a film that pleases the fans and tops the box office, but is unlikely to trouble the legendary status of the 1991 classic.
Nonetheless it is entertaining, enjoyable and I have no doubt I it will get a rave review from Miss 9 when she sees it opening weekend.
3 & 1/2 Stars “An Honourable Achievement.”