What would Howard Ashman have thought? We’ll never know. But as the credits rolled on “Beauty and the Beast,” Disney’s live-action update of its own 1991 animated masterwork, I found myself perusing the late, great lyricist’s words in search of a phrase that would do the experience justice.
“Just a little change; small, to say the least”? A bit of an understatement.
“Perfect, a pure paragon”? Alas, no.
Oddly, the correct answer sprang from another genius Ashman-Alan Menken collaboration entirely: “Look at this stuff, isn’t it neat?”
The new “Beauty and the Beast” is a look-at-this-stuff kind of picture. The Beast’s castle, its labyrinthine interiors captured from a multitude of swirling camera angles, is a rococo real-estate catalog come to life. (Call it Better Homes and Gargoyles.)
That so many of the actors are playing singing-and-dancing household objects feels both apt and a touch redundant in a movie where the decor is already the loudest character on screen. This isn’t just a remake; it’s an act of cinematic upholstery, with all the padding that implies.
The performances are unexceptionally fine. Emma Watson, making an intuitive leap from the bookish, lovely Hermione Granger to the bookish, lovely Belle, gives us a luminous if not exactly full-throated heroine. Dan Stevens, his good looks peeking out from behind the Beast’s horned countenance and gruff manner, pulls off an excellent hybrid of Bigfoot and Mr. Darcy.
Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald, availing themselves of state-of-the-art visual sorcery, do thoroughly credible if character-deficient impersonations of a candelabra, a clock, a teapot, a feather duster, a grand piano and a wardrobe, respectively.
Familiar as much of this may sound, the filmmakers have done their best to dispel the project’s inevitable air of redundancy. Working from a screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, the director, Bill Condon, is no stranger to the challenges of adapting a popular musical property (“Dreamgirls”) or navigating a cross-species romance (the final two “Twilight” movies). With “Beauty and the Beast,” he has taken a sleek and elegant 84-minute fairy tale — the crown jewel of Disney’s ’90s new-wave renaissance — and spun from it a 129-minute epic of extravagance, a gilded monument to the more-is-more principle.
You feel that more-ness most of all in the music, and unfortunately it’s the same kind of more-ness you get from a blandly over-produced cover of a beloved song. When Belle sings about the poor provincial town where she lives with her inventor father (a sweetly absent-minded Kevin Kline), you might note how slack the tempo feels, how much dead air seems to have been piled around the individual stanzas so as to accommodate exaggerated bits of business and slapstick.
Later at the castle, when a kitchen full of crooning crockery invites the newly imprisoned Belle to “Be Our Guest,” you may applaud their dinner-theater antics out of a sense of duty rather than delight. The choreography is dazzling, the effect curiously numbing: Can singing and dancing plates and utensils seem genuinely enchanting when they’re so clearly following a template? Surely an elaborate digital recreation buys you more genuine magic than this.
The musical hiccups are particularly revealing. The Oscar-winning 1991 film endures, in no small part, on the strength of Menken’s compositions and Ashman’s lyrics, a sublime marriage of sensibilities that still feels like a nonpareil achievement in the animated musical canon — a master class in storytelling through song. What’s remarkable is not just the catchiness but also the narrative agility of the music, the intricate layering of exposition, character development, humor and surprise in every line and melody.
That extraordinary level of concision — something that the costly, labor-intensive animation process often demands — stands in sharp contrast to the new film’s faltering rhythms. This “Beauty and the Beast” is a leisurely, sprawling affair, pausing to revel in its own splendor when it should be picking up the pace — and curiously enough, the result feels less lifelike and more cartoonish than its hand-drawn predecessor in nearly every respect. That the tale of a prince and his servants trying to reclaim their stolen humanity should itself feel so immobilized, trapped rather than liberated by the live-action medium, is scarcely the least of the movie’s ironies.
There are moments when Condon’s maximalist impulses pay off. Luke Evans is such an ideal physical match for Gaston, the story’s impossibly buff, arrogant, antler-poaching, Belle-coveting villain, that he comes enviably close to putting his own muscular stamp on the role. He’s aided immeasurably in this feat by Josh Gad’s crack timing as Gaston’s boisterous and besotted sidekick, LeFou. (The character’s “exclusively gay” moment, ill-advisedly trumped up in the movie’s marketing rollout, turns out to be a mild throwaway — a little something there that wasn’t there before. Or was it?)
Another saving grace: Watson and Stevens not only manage a nice and bristly screen rapport but also strike a chord of authentic feeling. Their big ballroom dance number is an unsurprising highlight; that iconic golden gown is so radiant, it’s almost radioactive. But pay attention to the dialogue they exchange beforehand when Belle, diving into the castle library, engages the Beast in a playfully barbed discussion of Shakespeare. She falls in love with this monster, we’re reminded, not just because of his latent goodness, but also because he is her intellectual equal.
For the most part, the same can’t be said of this “Beauty and the Beast” in relation to its predecessor (or, for that matter, in relation to Jean Cocteau’s hauntingly poetic 1946 version). Little that has been reproduced here rises above the level of serviceable imitation, and little that has been added — including four new songs written by Menken and the lyricist Tim Rice — feels particularly inspired. The most inexplicable addition is a supernatural plot device that illuminates the untimely death of Belle’s mother, as if we needed more of a reason to empathize with our heroine. (What will Disney dream up next? Photos from Mufasa’s autopsy?)
But enough with the side-by-side comparisons, you may be thinking: Surely none of this will matter to those encountering the material for the first time! Can’t we appreciate the new work on its own terms? To which I would counter that there is precious little this “Beauty and the Beast” can honestly call its own, so thoroughly and unsuccessfully does it try to mimic and maximize its predecessor’s very specific charms.
Keeping a checklist of what a remake gets wrong may be a fundamentally pedantic, ungenerous approach to criticism. But it may also be the appropriate one in response to Disney’s ongoing business strategy, which, even with above-average outings like the recent updates of “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” seems increasingly invested in exploiting the audience’s nostalgia. This isn’t the studio’s first enterprise to trade in secondhand pleasures and, certain as the sun rising in the east, it won’t be the last.
‘Beauty and the Beast’
MPAA rating: PG, for some action violence, peril and frightening images
Running time: 2 hour, 9 minutes
Playing: In general release