One of the new songs in the live-action adaptation of Disney’s Beauty in the Beast-indeed, the main new song, as it is performed three times, and once by Celine Díon-is titled “How Does a Moment Last Forever?” Its context in the film isn’t entirely clear, but the general gist is “How do you make a great thing that happens briefly last for as long as possible?” That seems to be the general concept behind this film, the most recent in Disney’s attempts to create live-action renditions of their classics. They want to take that magic that they captured in a bottle and make it last for as long as possible. It makes sense they would attempt this with Beauty and the Beast-it was the film that truly saved their studio, it became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture (and the only one to do it straight out, without the aid of preferential ballots and ten slots), and, in this reviewer’s opinion, may be the greatest animated film of all time. It’s at least Top 3. Unfortunately, the song never really makes it clear if you can make a moment last forever, and this film doesn’t really either. While there’s still some magic in this film’s story, script, cast, and music (my God, especially the music), it never really feels as romantic, as necessary, or as perfect as it should, feeling average both as an adaptation and as a stand-alone production.
In case you had a terrible childhood, or were born before 1980 and were “too old” in 1991, the story goes as follows: a young girl named Belle (Emma Watson) lives in the town of Villeneuve with her father, a clockmaker named Maurice (Kevin Kline). Belle is far beyond the small-minded and prejudiced people of her town-she’s whip smart, she’s adventurous, she’s literate (and loves to read), and she’s a talented inventor. She yearns for an adventure like the one in her stories, and longs to leave her “little town.” When a monstrous Beast (Dan Stevens) captures her father, she offers to take his place living in his castle for all eternity. However, the Beast isn’t quite who he seems to be-he is actually a Prince who was cursed for his inability to love, only to be set free if he can open his heart once more and earn love in return. Can this stubborn-yet-resilient beauty find love with this headstrong misanthrope of a beast with the help of his magical object servants? It’s a Disney movie, what do you think?
To put in perspective the level of power this particular story has, let me explain my own history with the film. I wasn’t really a Disney fan growing up. There were only five films (excluding Pixar) that were in constant rotation in my house, due to my disdain for their stories: The Jungle Book, Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, The Great Mouse Detective, and Beauty and the Beast (I also adored Sleeping Beauty whenever it was on The Wonderful World of Disney, and Mulan was a favorite near the end of my childhood). I can appreciate more Disney films now that I’m an adult (the opposite of how most people feel about the company), but many of these feelings still remain. Beauty and the Beast is one of the few that actually feels magical out of the entire Disney lexicon. It’s a simple, sweet story, with layer upon layer of subtext revealed through multiple viewings. It’s got a stellar voice cast, from the big names in the supporting cast to the newcomers like Paige O’Hara and Richard White. The animation is hands-down some of the best ever made. And then there’s the score, written to perfection by Alan Menken with incredible lyrics by Howard Ashman (Ashman passed away mere weeks before the original premiered due to complications from AIDS). Everything in that original comes together for a film that is, quite simply, magic. This is how I feel about the original film, and I’m not even a Disney fan. This means that the bar is not only high for me, but much higher for the thousands of people who would line up to see this movie. Matching the original is absolutely out of the question, which leaves the filmmakers only one other choice: they have to be different. And this is where the film both succeeds and fails.
You see, there are some excellent changes to the script. The character trait of “Inventor” moving from father to daughter in this rendition of the story works surprisingly well (despite one terrible visual gag involving the washing machine), and the other alterations allow for fleshing out of characters not formerly developed, such as Le Fou and the Beast. It also allows for more time to show the budding romance between Belle and the Beast. Sure, the idea of turning the Beast into what essentially amounts to a Hemingway bro (“Ugh, you read Shakespeare? Let me know when you start reading real literature…”) seems off-putting and eye-roll worthy, but it also gives the couple something to bond and bicker over, giving their budding romance weight when the original film went from hatred to “There may be something there I didn’t see before.” There’s also an added subtext on the effects parents have on their children, which works surprisingly well for amounting to just a few lines, and being added nearly from scratch. I will give credit to screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos, but something tells me that the majority of these improvements come from Stephen Chbosky, the writer of Perks of Being a Wallflower, who has proven that he has a keen eye for young love and interpersonal relationships. His fingerprints seem all over it, and for the most part, they give this film the punch up it needs (bar a few missteps, including the aforementioned washing machine and the fate of Belle’s mother).
However, film isn’t just a written medium. It’s also a visual medium. And that’s where Beauty and the Beast falters. That’s not to say this film isn’t pretty to look at-indeed, the costumes are gorgeous (especially the yellow dress), the effects look nice, and the sets are absolutely stunning, drawing inspiration from both the cartoon and the famous 1946 French rendition known for its stunning scenic design. I’m talking about the staging of it all. Bill Condon is not necessarily a bad director-in my opinion, he made the only good Twilight movie in Breaking Dawn: Part 2, and Dreamgirls is fantastic. But when it comes to actually staging things, Condon lacks a certain…something. And that’s fine in movies like Dreamgirls, where there really aren’t any big show-stopping moments that aren’t simply “You put the camera on Jennifer Hudson and stand back.” But Beauty and the Beast is a spectacle, and it requires a certain magic. For his part, Condon tries to create something unique, instead of a shot-for-shot remake of the original. He draws from other movie musical classics for inspiration-Oliver! for the song “Belle,” bits of Les Misérables for “Gaston,” and The Sound of Music for “Belle’s Soliloquy.” But that’s the issue itself. Take “Be Our Guest,” for example. The original “Be Our Guest” number is, arguably, one of the greatest animated sequences in all of film history. It should feel like an absolute triumph here. And Condon tries-he adds some nice colors, does his best to make the CGI look real, and adds allusions to all the great musicals he can think of, from Cabaret to Singin’ in the Rain to Bollywood to Busby Berkeley. And it’s…nice. But that’s it. Just nice. It doesn’t match the verve of the original, and never feels like its own thing. Just a bunch of computer-generated images flashing across the screen. No magic, no joy, nothing but the music. That’s how almost every scene in this movie feels, from beginning to end, meaning that while mostly everything moves forward enjoyably, it always has a sense of disappointment layered underneath.
Luckily, Alan Menken is still around to keep things lively. And it’s a good thing, too-this score still sounds absolutely marvelous, from beginning to end, and even if you feel that the actors are simply doing karaoke of your favorite songs. The music is still memorable, charming, eerie, romantic, and perfect, all at once. And if you wanted more, there are even three new songs for you to enjoy. Although I would hinder your excitement-the lyrics are written by Tim Rice, Disney’s Ashman replacement who feels that complicated lyrics can include the line “In a class above the rest/it even went well with his vest.” Still, there is some magic in these new songs. The first new song, “Days In The Sun,” is an absolute clunker, and one that should have remained on the cutting room floor-it adds nothing to the plot or the characters’ development. The second, “How Does A Moment Last Forever?” is pleasant enough, and is the one Disney is hedging its bets on to become a hit, but is more an “I See The Light” than it is a “Colors of the Wind.” If you ask me what the best new song is, I’d pick “Evermore,” which gives the Beast a solo, a chance for characterization (even if we already understand he’s falling in love with Belle), has the benefit of good lyrics and a great score, and has the added bonus of being performed by Josh Groban during the credits. This is Menken’s best work in years-perhaps since Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it deserves kudos (if you like the musical, it’s essentially a replacement for “If I Can’t Love Her,” and it’s about just as good).
Let’s be honest, though-you all could care less about the writing and the directing and the what-not. You want to know how these actors did playing these iconic roles. Well I’ll tell you-they were all pretty good. Obviously Emma Watson was the best of the cast-she gives Belle spunk, sass, wit, intelligence, and heart, not to mention the fact that she’s pretty enough to earn the name “Beauty.” She’s almost as pretty as Dan Stevens, who spends most of the movie in CGI doing voice work, but he’s still impressive (actually, it might be the best mo-cap work outside of Andy Serkis, if I’m being honest). His voice gives the creature soul, and it helps at the end that, unlike the original, the prince Belle ends up with doesn’t feel like a letdown in the looks department (look, all I’m saying is he’s on my Free Pass list). Both have decent voices, if not knockouts, that can carry the songs in question. If you’re looking for truly great voices, as well as great comedic/menacing timing, look no further than Gaston and Le Fou. Unsurprisingly (or perhaps surprisingly, considering their previous “works”), Luke Evans and Josh Gad have terrific chemistry, timing, and voices as the narcissistic hunter/soldier/town celebrity and his schlubby little sidekick. They are funny until they aren’t, entertaining until it’s frightening, and above all, just great fun. Their first big number, “Gaston,” is the show’s true crowd-pleaser, nearly bringing down the house in its wit and energy. The second, “The Mob Song,” is famously one of the most underrated in Disney’s repertoire, and it feels even more timely and sinister now, in Evan’s more-than-capable hands. Honestly, these two alone are worth the price of admission (on a side note, if you have heard any of the rumors surrounding Le Fou’s character, I have this to say: shame on Disney for getting up the hopes of LGBT kids everywhere, and shame on anyone boycotting the film over this “moment.” It’s less than a second long, and it barely qualifies as ambiguous). Amongst the household objects, the greatest of the characters is Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, bringing his Shakespearean pomp and circumstance to the resident buzzkill, while stage star Audra McDonald is blessed with a great voice and a nothing part as the sleepy Wardrobe. Stanley Tucci’s role as Cadenza the Harpsichord is an odd choice, because the role barely registers, but he’s sweet, and he’s always welcome in every movie I see. And Gugu Mbartha-Raw brings the sexiness and playfulness required for the role of Plumette the feather duster.
I’m sure you’ve noticed I have yet to mention the two most famous household objects. That’s because I have the most mixed feelings about them. Ewan McGregor is, in many ways, a no brainer as Lumière the charming candelabra. He’s quick-witted, he’s funny, he’s charming, he’s silly, and, as we learned from Moulin Rouge!, he has a lovely singing voice (ok, a very passable singing voice, but I like it). He’s not even that bad of a dancer, when it comes to his big number. Unfortunately, there’s the matter of that French accent. Look, Jerry Orbach’s accent in the original is no master work, played somewhere between camp and terrible, but you could convince me he’s Marion Cotillard when you compare it to McGregor’s sorry attempt. My God, it’s so bad he just gives up trying on “Be Our Guest” and just sings it with his normal voice. I’m not sure if I would have wanted a French actor (or better French impressionist) in the part or if I’d have preferred McGregor just use a normal voice, but a choice needed to be made. And speaking of bad accents, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts. Thompson is a wonderful actress, fits Mrs. Potts quite nicely, and has a lovely singing voice. But she tries to recreate Angela Lansbury’s natural accent that she used to make “Beauty and the Beast” into the landmark song it is now. And let me just say: If you come for the Queen, you best not miss. Thompson would have been better off sticking with her own accent, rather than attempt to capture something uncatchable.
Beauty and the Beast is still a fantastic story. It’s a tale of love conquering all, learning the importance of caring for others, not judging people for their differences or looks, and the danger of small-mindedness towards women and those we don’t understand. Regardless of the issues with the whole “Doesn’t the Beast kinda kidnap her?” part of the story, this is a film chock-full of important morals, and it is aided by a good cast and great music. However, there is nothing new here, nothing that justifies a new rendition, and ultimately, nothing that makes this film memorable. It’s a nice appendix to anyone who loves the original, and worth the viewing just for that reason, but that’s the extent of it.