A vacuous Emma Watson almost spoils this live-action fairytale, rescued by Alan Menken’s stunning soundtrack.
Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is expected to open with the biggest March weekend in box office history, and it’s hardly surprising: this is a film with ridiculously broad appeal, a Springtime treat for 80s and 90s nostaligists, children (and their paying parents), Harry Potter and Downton Abbey fans, fans of classic musicals and new musicals (thanks, La La Land) and everyone else who’s curious what the fuss is all about. Does this expensive, theatrical musical deserve such high status? It really doesn’t. Condon’s Beauty, in every conceivable way, does the job acceptably, but it rarely surprises, stuns or innovates. Neither does it capture that “pure Walt Disney spirit” with such energy as Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, released around the same time last year. Beauty is lively, entertaining and occasionally very charming, but it’s never truly… beautiful.
The film’s single most fatal flaw is the casting of Emma Watson as young heroine Belle. Watson, who should have abandoned her acting career for modelling once Potter wrapped, has a resting face best described as ‘narcissistic flirtation’. Even when talking to her father (Kevin Kline) or an animated teacup, there’s a jarring amount of eyebrow acting taking place. Nobody could be more miscast as a naive seamstress from a small French village; there are literally hundreds of actresses who would have been better suited to the role.
Watson is so weak that the other, stronger, performers visibly struggle to compensate: Kline makes a solid effort, while Dan Stevens (who plays the Beast) fares less successfully. The animation of the Beast is shockingly sub-par, perhaps intentionally lacking realism to maintain a child-friendliness, but nonetheless looking dated when compared to the CGI in last weekend’s Kong: Skull Island.
The Beast, more so even than Belle, is just generally an unappealing character, and their romance feels forced and flat. One dreads to imagine how cold the film would be without Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s sensational songs, carried over with overwhelming triumph from the 1991 film: even Watson can’t spoil the opening “Belle” and Emma Thompson delivers a melancholy “Beauty & The Beast” almost worthy of Angela Lansbury. Best of all is “Gaston”, a foot-stamping anthem of macho ferocity executed delightfully by- doing the finest work of their careers- Luke Evans and (I admit reluctantly) Josh Gad.
As sword-waving gonzo Gaston and his (supposedly gay) lackey Le Fou, this duo provide much of Beauty‘s lightness, and it’s soul. Also contributing are the array of servants-turned-household implements: Thompson, Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci are particularly amusing as a teapot, candelabra and harpsichord, respectively.
Once Belle reaches the Beast’s castle, the warm early locations are replaced with less believable icy landscapes. Though, aided by the timeless score, the film reaches its climax with sufficient emotional substance, this Beauty has the general air of a manufactured product: Condon’s camera rests a little too long on Belle’s dresses and other merchandisable items. It’s easier to sell children’s costumes from a live-action film than an animated one: let’s not forget why this film exists. That, my friends, is the ‘tale as old as time’.