Beauty and the Beast (2017): Disney and the Dud

* ½ (out of 4)

When I last visited my relatives in China, I was asked by a group of them to play something on the piano. Since I had not touched a keyboard in several months, I decided to play Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, a piece that I thought would sound impressive enough to save face. I hadn’t even gotten halfway through the large, banging chords of the climax before all my relatives started breaking out into exclamations — and by the time I was done, I found myself inundated with compliments on my playing. Never mind that my “interpretation” had no expression, or that I had obviously messed up some notes. To them, loud and big were sure signs of greatness.

On a visceral level, the new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast often feels like it’s trying to do what I did then: dupe its audience into admiration by assailing it with noise. Mind-numbing cacophony forms a backdrop to much of what transpires in the story, and the obstruction it wreaks completely ruins the musical numbers, the core of what made the original movie so charming and heartfelt. Even the supposedly gentle titular song features accompaniment at times so deafening that you can hardly make out what Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) is saying — and other staples (“Be Our Guest,” “Gaston”) fare far worse. Perhaps this is all for the best, however, since if you listen carefully, you’ll be able to discern just what little there is beneath the ruckus: a few new songs with completely forgettable lyrics and melodies (this is not a shining moment for Alan Menken), singing that’s obviously Auto-Tuned, and interpretations of old numbers that are so lacking in enthusiasm and spark that they’d hardly be worth noting if we weren’t so familiar with them already.

Ideally, remakes are greenlighted because somebody sees something in the original that’s worth updating or tweaking. At some points, this particular retread almost convinces us that that’s the case here. It certainly patches up some of the plot holes in its predecessor — remember how the villagers somehow knew nothing about the castle right next door and how Gaston used arrows to attack the Beast? More importantly, it also corrects for some of the less appealing implications of the original story. Animated Beast fell almost instantly for Belle because she was “beautiful”; here, the relationship between the two (now played by Emma Watson and Dan Stevens) only really blossoms after they discover their shared love of poetry, not because of any repressed hormones on the Beast’s part. Later, Watson’s Belle asks the Beast after their dance, “How can I be happy if I’m not free?” a moment that, however forced, clarifies that she subsequently returns to the castle as a voluntary equal, not a submissive, I-need-my-master prisoner.

Yet for all the things it rectifies, this new version still creates many problems of its own. The zaniness of some of the original’s best moments — think Gaston getting booted from Belle’s house in grand style — has been completely sucked away. So many of the characters have been inexplicably mellowed out: Maurice (Kevin Kline) is now an angsty old man who somehow has trouble telling Belle that her mom died because she got sick, Gaston (Luke Evans) a war veteran who actually buys Maurice’s story about the Beast, and Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) a bore who does nothing worthy of being mocked. (Lefou [Josh Gad] is supposedly gay, but the implication is so subtle that you suspect the AFA just needs an excuse to get pissed over something.) The voice acting is stiff — Thompson lacks the sharpness of Angela Lansbury, McKellen the pomposity of David Ogden Stiers, and Ewan McGregor (Lumière) the geniality of Jerry Orbach. And for all the supposed wonders of CGI, watching Mrs. Potts move her “mouth” while speaking leaves you feeling sorry for whoever was tasked with designing a “lifelike” talking teapot.

If the main characters were decently compelling, all of these issues would be perhaps secondary. Alas, the two protagonists do little to redeem this mess. Watson’s Belle may be more empowered, but her acting is uneven. She often wears a smirk that makes her look smug at all the wrong moments, and when she sees her father in the magic mirror, it’s painfully apparent that she’s reciting lines to a prop. And the Beast, aside from being designed and voiced in a way that renders him largely lifeless, transitions from temperamental boor to quasi-intellectual bibliophile with an abruptness that leaves us rather unconvinced: as just one example of what feels off, the fact that, unlike his illiterate predecessor, Stevens’ Beast can flawlessly recite Shakespeare looks ridiculous when you see that, as in the original, he’s nevertheless still unable to use a spoon and fork. Put together, Watson and Stevens form a chemistry-free pairing that never goes beyond the perfunctorily ordinary; the magic and joy that defined the best moments of their characters’ interactions in the original are now nowhere to be found.

Most of the positive reviews for this movie have justified their evaluations by citing the film’s production values. To be sure, the lavish costumes and sets certainly have a good chance of winning a couple of Oscars next year. Yet while you might initially find yourself ogling these visuals, the awe wears off quickly: the camera often spins around with such a drunken giddiness that they’re frequently just reduced to colorful blurs, and as the story trudges onward, you find that all the splendor is really little more than Gatsbyesque fluff, the sort of gaudiness that makes an already-heavy drag feel even weightier. For all its initial pretenses at being an honest do-over, then, this movie eventually shows just how unscrupulous Disney has become in its attempts to empty your wallet — not even the first animated Best Picture nominee was spared from being transmogrified into stultifying dullness. If the guys down in Burbank approach all their upcoming live-action remakes like this, they ought to be aware: there are going to be a lot of angry childhoods demanding payback.

***

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald

Running Time: 129 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG, “for some action violence, peril, and frightening images.”

Produced by: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman

Written by: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos. Based on Disney’s 1991 animated film of the same name, which is based on Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 fairy tale of the same name.

Directed by: Bill Condon