Sunday, March 26, 2017

'Beauty and the Beast' review

Remaking Beauty and the Beast was always going to be a tricky proposition. The original 1991 animated film is one of the most beloved family classics of all time, a fairy tale that is quite possibly Disney's most iconic feature. It was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture, and its influence has only grown as the years have gone by. But with Disney's recent trend of re-imagining its animated classics, we all knew that at some point, they would turn their attention to Beauty and the Beast. Both Cinderella and The Jungle Book were box office bonanzas, bringing in family audiences in droves and making obscene profits for the Mouse House. With the recent announcement that Disney will be tackling remakes of films like The Lion King and Aladdin, it's clear that the studio plans to milk this cash cow until the end of time. Beauty and the Beast was the most hotly anticipated of the whole bunch, as fans eagerly watched to see how Disney would reinvent the "Tale as Old as Time" for a new generation. There was huge potential for a nostalgia-driven hit, but also the chance that they could screw it all up.

Thankfully, I'm here to report that they did a tremendous job. Beauty and the Beast is a magical remake that captures the spirit of the original and brings it to life for modern times, and it's pretty much everything that fans could possibly want. There are plenty of new additions that will surely upset those looking for an purely loyal adaptation, but director Bill Condon ultimately mixes reverence and reinvention to great effect. Beauty and the Beast is both fresh and faithful, a film that proves there's room for both nostalgic remakes and bold new visions in the sphere of fairy tale adaptations. With great performances, including a terrific lead turn from Emma Watson, gorgeous visual landscapes, and grand musical numbers, Beauty and the Beast comes together quite nicely. As a huge fan of the original, this film hits the spot.

Do I really need to tell you what this movie is about? If you're reading this review, you probably know the story and you're probably familiar with the original animated film. There's no need to tell you more. There's a beautiful girl, there's an ugly beast, and they fall in love. If anything, you're probably wondering what they've added to the story in this new rendition. After all, the 1991 animated film ran 84 minutes, while Condon's version is a whopping 129 minutes long. What's there to fill all that space? Well, not much that makes a difference. There's one subplot that I thought truly added to the narrative, while there are a few solid musical numbers that don't detract from the film. Even thought this Beauty is longer, it doesn't feel it, and the additions don't ultimately do much to benefit or harm anything. The heart of the story is still there, and that's all that really matters.

The clever trick that Condon pulls off is giving the audience enough new material to give this remake its own distinct flavor, while also delivering the wondrous nostalgia factor that I think most audiences are looking for in the first place. As someone who loves the original film and also performed in a middle school version of the show, I didn't want this to be some kind of bold re-imagining, because quite frankly, I don't think there's much worth changing. The animated film is perfect in every way, and I wouldn't have wanted to see a Disney remake with a radical shift in style and tone. There's plenty of room for different interpretations of Beauty and the Beast, but I wouldn't want the Mouse House behind the wheel. In 2017, I wanted a portrayal of the classic tale that was magical and musical and crafted with a sense of fun. I wanted some cinematic comfort food, a familiar tale in beautiful new clothes. If that makes me a bad critic, then I guess I'll accept that. But I knew what I wanted and Condon delivered.

However, when you remake something with so much loyalty to the classic source material, you do run the risk of making your movie feel like a vapid rip-off. Some have clearly felt that way about this big-budget version, and I went in with a great deal of trepidation. I wasn't sure how to feel at first- as the opening scene and initial number played out, something just felt off. The pieces were there, but the magic was missing. Slowly but surely, Condon finds his footing, giving a sense of marvelous wonder to match his spectacular visuals. At its worst, certain scenes play out like an obligation- Condon has to include "Be Our Guest," because fans would be disappointed otherwise (he even said this himself). This frustrates the pacing of the proceedings, and it's the sole element of the film that I don't think he quite pulled off. I was jarred when some of the musical numbers popped up, and there were moments that felt truncated or awkward. But when things come together, Beauty and the Beast is nothing short of classic Disney magic.

The cast is a large part of the appeal, and as a matter of fact, they were the main reason I was so intrigued in the first place. Emma Watson always seemed like the perfect actress to portray Belle in a live-action version, and she truly knocks it out of the park. She conveys the right mix of strong-willed independence, compassion, and radiant beauty, and her performance shines during every moment of the film. Watson is the glue that holds it all together, and she really proves herself as a talented, versatile actress here. Dan Stevens matches her well, and he does good work in a somewhat thankless role. Stevens is one of the best rising stars we have right now, and although I would prefer to see him do more terrific genre work like The Guest, something like Beauty and the Beast is an excellent profile boost for him. I was also surprised by Luke Evans' performance as Gaston- going in, I wasn't sure that he'd even be able to pull it off. Evans turns out to be a fabulous Gaston, chewing the scenery and reveling in this delightfully dastardly character and all of his boastful histrionics.

Of course, much has been made over the supposed gay moment involving Josh Gad's LeFou, with the filmmakers seemingly unable to decide whether it's an obvious choice or some kind of subtext. Even if Condon hadn't made a big deal about the "exclusively gay moment" in an interview, I think most adult viewers would have noticed LeFou's crush on his buff friend. It's an appropriate, fascinating interpretation of the character, and Gad's Broadway talent comes in handy during the bombastic musical numbers. I was also rather impressed by Kevin Kline's turn as Maurice, as he gives the character a heart and soul that I hadn't really seen before. As someone who played Maurice in my middle school stage adaptation, this was a nice adjustment for me. Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, and all the other voice actors are serviceable, but they're limited by the hyper-realistic visual design. And I still don't know how they couldn't get a French actor to play Lumiere.

Speaking of the visual design, Beauty and the Beast cost a reported $160 million and you can clearly see all of that money on the screen. Every aspect of the production design is opulent and gorgeous, from the dreamlike sets to the pitch-perfect costumes. Condon finds a balance between grounded humanity and surrealism, a mix that allows for the spectacular musical numbers and creative creature design. With a movie like this, you need that perfect blend, and the fact that Condon delivers the goods helps to make everything come together quite nicely. Beauty and the Beast is big and bold and beautiful to behold, and it's such a fantastically appealing film that most of its problems are overshadowed by its grand ambitions.

Sure, Beauty and the Beast might not offer much in the way of new material to enhance this classic story. And it definitely isn't any kind of radical re-interpretation of the 1991 film. But that doesn't stop Condon and the whole cast from making some Disney magic of their own, bringing the songs and characters to life in a delightful, attractive remake for a new generation. If you're a fan of the original, this will pretty much give you everything that you could possibly want. It's charming, fun, and thoroughly engaging. They nailed it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.6/10)

Image Credits: Coming Soon/IMDB/Disney

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