Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast ★★★

This really should be two and a half stars...but you know, fuck objectivity.

I grew up with the animated version, deep in my Disney-child DNA: to this day, I cannot think about the original without smiling. It's difficult for me to put aside that bias when talking about Disney, period, much less one of the stories I grew up with. And fact is, I was smiling through most of this, to: even when my inner film student screamed, my inner child told her to shut up, and usually, she succeeded.

But. But. Even my inner child had to admit that this was…a rush job. In the script, in the production, in the blocking, in the direction, in pretty much everything except for a few A+ casting choices. It’s a letdown, because the original is my favorite Disney movie, but it’s even more of a letdown because I found Cinderella and The Jungle BookCinderella in particular—so unexpectedly good. The former gave its title character new agency, turning a flat fairytale into one of the best representations of living with emotional abuse I’ve seen; the latter changed the original’s racist elements, fixed its ending, and used its live-action realism and CGI innovations to enhance the story with a new, grounded tone. (My feelings on Cinderella are enough for a separate review, one that might be too personal to publish.) This film, on the other hand, doesn’t present itself with a reason for existing. It touches on revisionism, before changing the story in only the most arbitrary of ways; it was always going to be a CGI-fest, but it doesn’t use its CGI to create anything new. Pair that with a sloppy script, obviously artificial scenery, and the weakest lead performance of the reboots so far, and you have the ingredients of an almost complete clunker on your hands.

…almost. There’s actually a lot of good elements here, for all my gripping. Luke Evans steals the show, and I wondered why I didn’t recognize a guy so clearly built for musicals until I went on IMDB and realized his filmography was mostly shitty action movies. Hopefully, his excellent turn here will change that—he has a manic, animation-like energy that the rest of the film sorely lacked. And Dan Stevens is just excellent, even under motion-capture. (Maybe it’s recency bias, considering I’ve gotten into Legion lately, but Matthew Crawley has come a long freaking way.) His Beast is still savage, but the film feels like it goes out of the way to explain why him and Belle could fall in love. Even though I know Belle teaching the Beast to read is an iconic part of the original, here they’re intellectual equals, with scenes of them reading together and sharing poetry and art. In the original film, their romance was conveyed in a montage, but here it had a heft to it that really made it feel alive. And, most importantly, this doesn’t just smooth out the Beast’s rougher edges: it makes Gaston a threat. Everyone’s favorite Disney frat bro was always pushy, but here, he’s menacing: grabbing Belle’s skirt, looming over her frame, pushing his way into places he doesn’t belong with a manic, instead of comic, edge. Culturally, we’ve had a lot of discussions about sexual violence since the original, and while nothing can entirely fix the fact that this is a story about a woman falling for her kidnapper, the fact that Gaston was motivated by a toxic entitlement that even the Beast at his worst lacked added great nuance.

And yet, for every element that's well thought-out, there's one that's sloppy and thrown together. Emma Watson’s performance is weak, especially next to her vibrant costars. (One gets the sense that she was cast for star power, but the thing about Belle is that she’s pure: pure kindness, pure intelligence, pure bravery. She has no guile or spunk, and when I think Emma Watson, I think Hermione, one of the spunkiest heroines in YA history.) Her famous yellow dress looks like it came off the rack at Party City, glitter glue and all. The backstory added to pad out the runtime, while occasionally touching, also feels uncomfortably forced. Maurice and Gaston’s plot line is also padded out, perhaps to justify the fact that Maurice isn’t eccentric here, just lonely—but why change a character so fundamentally if you have to write the script around it for no reason?

And most of all, so irritating that I’m dedicating an entire paragraph to it in a review that’s already almost a thousand words: the musical numbers are awful. I was shocked to see that Bill Condon had done a musical before, 2006’s Dreamgirls, because the direction here reeked of elementary mistakes. Say what you will about La La Land, but Damien Chazelle knows how to shoot a song: every one of those numbers has a camera that’s dynamic. It uses wide shots and long takes and sweeping pans, moving among the dancers so the audience gets a sense of the whole setpiece, and it has a rhythm in itself that responds to the music. Here, Condon shoots songs like conversations. Shot, reverse shot, shot, reverse shot, alternating between players so we see everybody eventually, but there’s no sense of the cast as a unified whole. This is important with any movie musical, but it’s paramount when your source material is animation. This is probably why “Gaston” fared the best of the numbers: the song was re-conceptualized for live-action. Instead of juggling twenty beers and gulping a dozen eggs, Gaston re-enacts his exploits and lifts maidens on his shoulders. Luke Evans still gives the song the manic quality of the animated original, but it’s believable that real people could be doing these things, and the contained space of the tavern means that the restricted direction actually does the ensemble justice. (Also, Luke Evans. Have I mentioned how much of an MVP Luke Evans is here? Because I’m not going to be shutting up about that for like, a week. At least.)

Really, the “Gaston” dichotomy just emphasizes the biggest problem of the film as a whole: tone. The scenes in Belle’s village are too grounded for a quasi-animated fairytale, and the scenes in the Beast’s castle are so animated it feels jarring to see Watson in the flesh. Maybe that’s what made this so different: the relative humanity of Cinderella, and the near-complete CGI of Jungle Book, allowed those films to pick a side and run with it. Here, the film is torn between two realities, and neither feels quite right. You’re having fun in one world when you’re suddenly yanked into another, and it’s difficult to synthesize when the worlds collide in the third act.

So, as a whole, this is a two-and-a-half star film, since I had a decent time with its many flaws. Had I walked into this not knowing the story, it probably would have been lower. But…it’s the morning after, and I’m thinking about every single weak point, every single nitpick, and I’m still smiling. So, three stars, and fuck objectivity.

(And if you haven’t seen the original, please, go do yourself a favor. Don’t be that guy from the AV Club.)

(…and about that LeFou thing: I honestly wouldn’t have noticed if Bill Condon hadn’t ran his mouth, and I’m [half] gay. Politics aside, it’s almost a shame that Condon felt he had to go there: to the film’s credit, Gaston is far less abusive to LeFou than his animated counterpart, and they have a delightful Elder Price/Elder Cunningham dynamic in their early scenes that I would have liked to see carried through. And politics not aside, I’m honestly disgusted at Bill Condon, who claimed that he did it to “honor” the late Howard Ashman. There’s a whole separate rant here, but in summary: Ashman wrote these songs while he was dying of AIDS, and the fact that they’re about a man who’s cursed to become a monster who can’t be loved was not an accident. Beauty and the Beast deserves a full-fledged, nuanced queer interpretation, and while I understand there was no way a Disney production could realistically go there, the fact that this was the alternative Condon chose made me a bit ill. Condon is gay himself, which I find even more confusing: considering he also directed the [otherwise excellent] Mr. Holmes, he seems to have a habit of taking properties with a long history of queer subtext and either ignoring or abusing them. Yikes.)

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