Disclaimer up front: I am probably not the best person to review this movie. I’ve only seen the original 1991 animated version twice, and I didn’t grow up knowing all the songs by heart, so take anything I say here with a large grain of salt. Also, I’m probably not the target demographic, so make of that what you will.
If 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” was “great” (and it most definitely was), 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast” is merely “good.” While this live-action update (directed by Bill Condon, and anchored by Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast) is a highly faithful recreation of its predecessor, for the most part the movie doesn’t advance much beyond the original film.
I’ll skip the plot summary, because if you’re reading this review you’re almost certainly familiar with the basic Disney template (bookish Belle goes to the cursed Beast’s castle to rescue her father, finds herself falling in love with the Beast, and is pursued by obnoxious meathead Gaston).
On a lot of fronts, Condon delivers: the music, for one thing, is every bit as good as you remember. The core musical motif is just as emotionally evocative as it was in the original, and the songs are strong across the board (Emma Watson can’t sing, but with the exceptions of “Belle” and “Something There,” she doesn’t really have to). “Be Our Guest” is just as surreal a fantasia as it was in the original, and “Gaston” and “Kill the Beast” are grandly staged barnstormers that are impossible not to love (they outdo the 1991 versions). Angela Lansbury is missed on the title song, but Emma Thompson is a generally satisfying replacement. And best of all, the Beast gets a brand-new “Phantom of the Opera”-style aria—“Evermore”—that’s an absolute showstopper, and probably the best song in the film.
(Also, just for the record: the “exclusively gay moment” in this movie is tamer than your average Shakespeare play. Like most Disney-related controversies, this one is extraordinarily dumb.)
But alas, despite its many virtues, this reincarnation of “Beauty and the Beast” doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessor.
I may end up being the only person who thinks this, but I’m inclined to think something aesthetically important was lost in the transition from animation to live-action. In the 1991 version, a lot of the movie’s rococo designs faded into the background; here, they’re on full HD display, and at times feel overpoweringly garish. The production design is breathtaking, but perhaps could’ve been a bit more understated.
Perhaps most disconcertingly, the new “Beauty and the Beast” radically reconfigures the moral architecture of its predecessor. In the 1991 film, the Beast is cursed to his monstrous form after selfishly refusing to offer shelter in his castle to an enchantress disguised as an old crone. One of the most unsettling aspects of the original was the implicit notion that the entire staff of the Beast’s castle—Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and everyone else—was cursed to suffer for the Beast’s sin. In the 2017 version, Belle (channeling Hermione) inquires about this. Mrs. Potts explains that the Beast’s father was a cruel man who treated his son badly, and the castle’s staff did nothing to intervene; accordingly, the “corporate punishment” they suffer is entirely merited.
The thematic impact of this change is hard to overstate. In 2017, the Beast’s initial selfish act—refusing to show compassion to the needy—isn’t really his fault: he’s just the product of a bad upbringing, and everyone else around him is partly responsible for what went wrong.
As the movie progresses, Condon doubles down on this odd dynamic. At the end of the 2017 film, when the Beast lies dying after an attack by Gaston, the enchantress herself reappears to lift the curse she initially placed on him, turning him from a beast back into a human prince. Contrast this with the 1991 movie, where the Beast morphed back into human form without the enchantress’s intervention.
The moral weightiness of the 1991 film was predicated on the idea of transformative love—the idea that through sacrificial self-giving, one’s essential being could be changed and redeemed. The Beast’s redemption in 1991 (with no onscreen enchantress in sight) was tied to his inner transformation: the fact that the spell lifted at the end of the film was a sign that something deep and real had happened within the Beast’s heart. In 2017, the Beast’s redemption is predicated on the enchantress’s external observation of his behavior: in other words, she just thinks he’s turned his life around, and accordingly lifts the spell.
The cumulative effect of these changes is to render the 2017 Beast a pawn of circumstance, not a moral agent in his own right. Not only is the Beast not really to blame for selfishly refusing to show compassion to the enchantress, he’s also not really required to undergo an internal transformation. As a result, the “Till We Have Faces”-esque emotional power of the earlier film gets lost.
Not everyone will agree with me, and if you’re a longtime fan of the 1991 version, the 2017 film is an absolute must-see. Indeed, it’s hard not to be swept aware in the sheer magic of the experience. But five years from now, if I get the urge to watch “Beauty and the Beast,” I’ll probably turn to the animated version: there’s a simple elegance to the original film that trumps the grandness of the 2017 movie. That version—and that greater story of inner transformation through selfless love—really is “a tale as old as time.”
A faithful, if not wholly satisfactory, retelling of the Disney classic.
Normalized Score: 3.4