Nostalgia is clearly the driving factor behind a great deal of modern popular culture, and Disney is certainly not immune to this phenomenon. The issue confronting most revisionist cinema is that anything worth remaking has already been made well once, and Beauty and the Beast is no exception. This live-action reworking of the 1991 animated film certainly has its merits, but many of these can be traced back to the source material, and few, if any, of the distinguishing factors between this film and the original can be counted as significant improvements. Having said that, the film still accomplishes its principal aims — namely, crafting a fairy tale romance around themes of independent thinking and the power of love to overcome superficiality. In a sense, this is a reboot justified more by its technological advancements than by any pressing narrative necessity, but it’s still a worthwhile enterprise for those with an affinity for the source material.
The story remains largely unchanged, with Belle (Emma Watson) encountering a mystical beast (Dan Stevens) that has imprisoned her father (Kevin Kline) in a derelict castle populated by inanimate objects endowed with life through a witch’s curse. Though the narrative structure and character relationships are functionally identical to those found in the original film, the running time for this updated iteration has been expanded by roughly 40 minutes, allowing for somewhat deeper character development and an enhanced exploration of the budding relationship between Belle and the Beast. This version also doubles down on diversity and makes cursory attempts to enhance previously existing character traits in our protagonist by devoting more attention to Belle’s literary bent. Such decisions are a step in the right direction but come across as half-hearted pandering rather than any serious effort to improve upon the 1991 film’s lack of ethnic variety — this film still takes place in a French town full of white people speaking with British accents, but now there are a couple of other races represented. Some of these additions come in the form of the cast voicing Beast’s servants-turned-furniture, with Audra McDonald playing Madame Garderobe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette, which is an interesting strategy considering the fact that this leaves their characters essentially raceless until the final minutes of the film.
McDonald and Mbatha-Raw are both excellent, as is the rest of the ensemble cast. Ian McKellan and Ewan McGregor are standouts as Cogsworth and Lumierre, respectively, and Luke Evans embodies Gaston with suitably narcissistic despicability. The real stars here, however, are Kline, Watson and Stevens. Watson looks as though she were cast in the Disney Princess mold from birth, and Stevens manages to convey a surprising amount of emotional nuance despite the inherent limitations that the complex motion-capture process imposes on an actor. Kline is absolutely outstanding, imbuing Belle’s father, Maurice, with pathos and sincerity. Josh Gad, on the other hand, hasn’t annoyed me this much since A Dog’s Purpose.
Of course, there are some significant issues with the narrative itself, and while much has been written (and remains to be stated) about the creepier Stockholm syndrome aspects of the plot, such rhetorical explorations would be redundant within the context of this review. If the story’s gender politics are not significantly improved, at least advancements in computer animation have put a new sheen on this tale as old as time. That being said, there’s something slightly disconcerting about the transition from the original hand-drawn cells to living actors surrounded by computer-generated props and settings. While the tone and events are relatively faithful to the original, the fact that they’re now carried out by human beings and not cartoons imparts a somewhat darker sensibility to episodes such as a wolf attack or Gaston’s preening musical number in which he brandishes a loaded firearm in a crowded bar. These sequences carry a gravity not present in their animated antecedents by virtue of the presence of live actors, an unexpected pitfall of an evolving medium.
Those with nostalgic attachment to the original film should find comfort in the emotional familiarity of this reimagining, although some may still prefer the hand-rendered aesthetic of the ’91 film. Kids raised primarily on computer animation will likely take no issue with the conglomeration of live-action and CG wizardry, leaving only curmudgeonly critics such as myself to complain about our modern cinematic reality. But the core of Beauty and the Beast has always been the love story at its heart, and I’m happy to say that it remains entirely intact. Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images. Now Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville, The Strand of Waynesville