Nostalgia only goes so far, and isn’t an end in itself. Revival isn’t the problem. It’s freshness – a quality, missing here, with which Disney first dazzled audiences 25 years ago.
Despite some recent griping about Disney’s current obsession with pillaging its own cinematic vaults, Walt’s empire was, from the start, built on adaptation. The studio’s first animated feature retold Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, already a time-tested fairy tale when it was released in 1937. With the exception of Fantasia (which featured new animated vignettes overlaid onto celebrated works of classical music), its most beloved pictures have all been remakes of previously told stories (including the Hamlet-indebted Lion King). Indeed, the company has always looked backward, and with a sense of pride. Disney’s very logo, after all, is a self-referential illustration of Cinderella’s castle.
These recent makeovers, from animation into live-action, have, at least creatively, been somewhat promising. Notwithstanding the candy-coated atrocities of Alice and her two CGI adventures in Wonderland, admirable reboots of Pete’s Dragon and The Jungle Book suggested good reasons for Disney to return to the well. As a business plan, however, each of these endeavors, whether cynical or not, has in practice been tireless printers of cash. So if you’re a Disney executive, why not redo not yet another second-tier property, but the shiniest jewel in your company’s crown.
Enter Bill Condon’s sumptuous remake of Beauty and the Beast, and with it, plenty of excitement (and maybe even more consternation) from fans of the original. The 1992 film was a landmark, the first cartoon nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (not to mention the only animated work to land in that top spot before the category was intentionally expanded to include more populist nominees). And rightly so. Belle is Disney’s brainiest hero, the first “princess” whose job it is to save a male monarch. As such, her story remains strikingly progressive, and the pinnacle of the studio’s animation renaissance.
Here’s the good news: Condon’s Beauty and the Beast won’t ruin any memories, childhood or otherwise. In many ways, it’s a genuine improvement on its cherished predecessor. Though it keeps every detail intact, slavishly so, this version of the tale makes a better narrative argument for the central love story. During the prologue, a petulant (and blandly handsome) prince (Dan Stevens) and his loyal staff are magically transformed, in his case into the titular monster, and in theirs, into the ornate effects and knick-knacks that furnish his cursed castle. The same rules apply here as in its cartoon blueprint. If the nameless Beast can’t discover true love and gain it from another before an enchanted rose sheds its last petal, the spell will hold and everyone will keep their inhuman forms. The countdown clock is ticking when Belle (Emma Watson), a fiercely independent bookworm with big ambitions and small-town roots, enters the picture and becomes the Beast’s captive. You probably know what happens next.
Beauty and the Beast is ravishing, especially with regard to the Beast’s charmed palace, a living and breathing Baroque Hogwarts. Condon amps up the gilt primness and wonder of Belle’s prison, which in her mind becomes an upgrade to a “provincial life.” With the film’s iconic musical numbers, he draws a straight line from Beauty and the Beast to the stage production of Les Misérables, a sharp insight that subsequently puts to shame Tom Hooper’s stilted 2012 film adaptation of that blockbuster musical. He even manages to make the first picture’s showstopper “Be Our Guest” more delirious, a Busby Berkeley extravaganza on amphetamines.
The full cast is mostly fabulous, particularly the anthropomorphic objects that inhabit the Beast’s abode (who include such greats as Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Ian McKellan, and Ewan McGregor). Luke Evans makes the preening villain Gaston truly abhorrent. Kevin Kline, as Belle’s eccentric father Maurice, is given more to do than his animated predecessor and is marvelous here. But the Beast is the real draw. Stevens’s Beast is, at heart, an insufferable elitist rather than an emotional brute, a refreshing update to the character. Only Watson feels miscast, oddly flat as Belle, a better-on-paper choice given her work as the whip-smart Hermione in the Harry Potter films.
Condon, who directed the excellent cinematic adaptation of Dreamgirls, approaches the material with equal parts reverence and caution. Apart from some deepening of backstories here and there and a tacked-on escape to Paris, Beauty and the Beast feels too familiar to justify its existence. Such enhancements are largely marginal while its central flaw, namely Watson, is on full display. The joys this capable remake offers can still be found by revisiting its source material. Nostalgia only goes so far, and isn’t an end in itself. Revival isn’t the problem. It’s freshness – a quality, missing here, with which Disney first dazzled audiences 25 years ago.