Wanted: 1991 Magic 

'Beauty and the Beast' revamp gets lost in the details.

click to enlarge TALE AS OLD AS TIME: Dan Stevens and Emma Watson bring Walt Disney's 1991 animation to life in the blockbuster remake of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."
  • TALE AS OLD AS TIME: Dan Stevens and Emma Watson bring Walt Disney's 1991 animation to life in the blockbuster remake of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."

Online pop culture commentary has, over the last few years, awoken to the realization that the much beloved 1991 "Beauty and the Beast" animated film is somewhat problematic, despite its stunning visuals and genuine charm. Doesn't it seem a bit harsh for the enchantress to curse the beast, a pre-pubescent boy apparently left alone without parents in a giant castle, for life, with the requirement that he find true love in 10 years' time? How was it that people living around the castle had never encountered it — and were apparently unaware of this prince, the ostensible head of regional government? And isn't the whole thing a rather troubling celebration of Stockholm Syndrome?

I mention these questions because the new "live-action" remake of "Beauty and the Beast" seems designed specifically to answer them. In the opening sequence, we learn that the prince (and beast-to-be, played by Dan Stevens) exults in luxury and has a truly selfish heart. The enchantress (Hattie Morahan) not only transforms this prince into a beast and his staff into furniture and cookware, but she also erases all memory of them and the castle from the minds of locals. And if Belle (Emma Watson) accustoms herself perhaps a little too easily to being a prisoner in the beast's castle, well, it's no doubt because "this provincial life" is, in many ways, already a prison for her.

It could be an interesting exercise — lightly updating a classic for modern sensibilities, rather than radically reinterpreting the original (as the studio had first considered, a la "Snow White and the Huntsman"). Unfortunately, the performances simply don't hold up to the story. Emma Watson, in particular, plays the role of Belle with very little conviction, practically sleepwalking through her introductory song, while Kevin Kline's Maurice, Belle's father, proves a nondescript, doddering old man. Ewan McGregor doesn't hold a candle to Jerry Orbach's original Lumière, and Emma Thompson only provides an impersonation of Angela Lansbury. Indeed, the only person truly committed to his role is Luke Evans, who plays the narcissistic Gaston with a refreshing gusto, even if he lacks the cartoonishly buff body of his predecessor.

Too, although one would expect greater visuals with a modern live-action movie, this movie just doesn't look as good as the cartoon. For starters, "Beauty and the Beast" uses the desaturated color palette common to most blockbusters these days. In fact, the nighttime sequences when Maurice gets lost, the beast fights off wolves and the villagers attack the castle are so thick with shadow they could have been cut from the "Underworld" franchise. Secondly, the beast's servants are now rendered in such detail as to rob them of personality. As cartoonist Scott McCloud has observed, there is value in simplicity, in a few lines used with skill — namely, it allows a wider audience to identify with the figure depicted. Cogsworth the clock, though, is such a baroque assemblage that Ian McKellen's voice has to do all the comedic work in getting across his combination of propriety and cowardice.

I am not one to tilt at remakes. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, "The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us." Certainly, there is value in retelling these stories as we, as a society, grow and evolve, and in this respect, "Beauty and the Beast" is oddly ambitious in its lack of ambition. Its desire is to tweak rather than recreate anew. Rather like Belle with the beast, audiences fell in love with the original movie rather quickly, despite some obvious flaws. Only time will tell if their children do the same with its live-action revival.


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