Review: Beauty and the Beast

“Rediscover a tale as old as time,” ran the tagline of the extensive marketing campaign which accompanied this remake’s release. From the start, Disney have been aware of the sanctity of their source material; few animated films are so beloved or well-remembered as The Beauty and the Beast. The original is still the only animated film ever to have been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Puzzled fans did not greet the announcement of this Emma Watson-led edition with wild enthusiasm – it was easy to begin the film wondering why this reimagining of the definitive cartoon was necessary.

The cynical cinema-goer would argue that it was not needed but was desperately wanted by Disney executives to rake in some easy cash. Indeed, much like its predecessor in this new trend of remaking princess classics, Cinderella, its trailers were saccharine and charming but tainted by the acrid aftertaste of money-grabbing insincerity. As neither a child nor a die-hard Disney fan, stepping into the cinema on a rainy afternoon to watch Beauty felt oddly like being lured into a candy-scented trap by an ace marketing team.

If you allow yourself to be enchanted – and the film’s dazzling aesthetics make it hard to resist – then this adaptation is a delightful addition to Disney canon

Nonetheless, if you allow yourself to be enchanted – and the film’s dazzling aesthetics make it hard to resist – then this adaptation is a delightful addition to Disney canon. The stunning costumes and sets mean that you could probably sit through the whole performance on mute and still enjoy the show. In terms of design, it is truly a spectacle to behold, and the production team can hardly be faulted. While it is easy to compare to the 1991 original, this version of Beauty stands capably on its own as a visual performance, and can be enjoyed as a picturesque escape into a faraway kingdom. Particular credit must go to the designers behind the Beast, a character difficult to bring to life but masterfully rendered in CGI.

Costume designer Jacqueline Durran used wisdom from her work in Atonement and Pride and Prejudice to produce beautiful period pieces with a fairy tale twist. The film begins with a dazzling insight into the prince’s hedonism before he is cursed by an enchantress, and the all-white ensemble stand in wonderfully striking contrast to the gilded court. From the outset, Durran dressed her cast to impress, and her fresh yet historically-guided costuming has already been tipped for an Oscar next year. Belle’s simple blue outfit was updated to represent her fierce independence, with her skirt partly tucked into her waist to reveal a pair of tomboyish pinstriped trousers beneath. When her iconic yellow ballgown is revealed towards the end of the film, it vaguely resembles its cartoon counterpart, but appears to be perpetually in motion – suggesting that the real magic of the film lay not in front of the camera, but in the hands of the crew behind it.

Joining Durran from the production crew of Atonement was Katie Spencer, responsible for the film’s set design. Again, her familiarity with historical work was clearly an asset as Belle’s quaint town and the Beast’s ominous castle were beautifully (and accurately) brought to life. Spencer’s set speaks for itself in the sprawling shots of Belle’s world, but it works best when complemented by the colourful characters of the cast, namely in the Gaston scene. While the exuberant townsfolk dance on wooden tables, spill flagons of beer and swing from mounted deer antlers, the set facilitates the frivolity and really brings the scene to life.

Director Bill Condon said the original score “had more to reveal” – and boy, was he right

Besides the brilliant design, the one asset of this Beauty compared to its predecessor is the new soundtrack. Beauty and the Beast and Something There, classics from the original, remain in the film and still sound great – perhaps because Alan Menken and Tim Rice, who worked on the 1991 version, were still at the helm of the music this time around and gently reworked them with new orchestra arrangements. Still, as director Bill Condon said of the original in an interview last month, “that score had more to reveal” – and boy, was he right. The film features four new songs, all of which make this version seem fresh and dynamic. By far the most powerful of the new additions is Evermore, sung by the Beast in a moment of anguish. As the Beast climbs his crumbling tower, the orchestra rises to meet him, and the film reaches its emotional climax.

That said, the most memorable songs from the original BeautyBe Our Guest and Gaston – teeter on the edge of ridiculous in the remake. The originals continue to entertain decades after their release, and though the technology and budget of this film allowed some room to expand, they weren’t broken and ought not to have been ‘fixed’. While undoubtedly a visual spectacle, the new Be Our Guest stopped and started without reaching the thrilling crescendo of the original, and Ewan McGregor’s French accent as Lumière was spirited but grating. Gaston suffered similar problems as it never quite built to the exultant finale its foot-stomping verses promised. Both had been meticulously designed to remain recognisable to original fans, and yet be bigger, better and more bombastic – unfortunately, this meant they did not retain the spontaneous joy of their source material.

To the extent that the original film was broken, however, this film was refreshingly remedial. The new cast’s diversity only exemplified quite how whitewashed the original was – though perhaps that can be attributed to historical realism, given that the film is set in eighteenth-century France. The 2017 film was a full 40 minutes longer than the original, and that gave it space to properly develop its characters. The Belle of the ‘90s could be accused of Stockholm syndrome in her sudden acclimatisation to the miserable Beast; in this version, the progression of their relationship feels far more organic. Emma Watson and Dan Stevens (as Belle and the Beast) shine brightest in the playful scenes they share, both exemplifying the advantages of human actors over cartoon characters.

A special mention must be made of LeFou, Gaston’s sycophantic sidekick. Much was made of the new film’s homoeroticism – to the extent that the film was almost censored in Malaysia to remove its so-called “exclusively gay moment”, so as not to break laws against homosexuality. In actuality, this forms only a fraction of the narrative, and is so subtle that it arguably would have passed by unnoticed if it had been a heterosexual interaction. Nonetheless, it is an important step for Disney and a welcome deviation from the usual princess story, so reliant on the stereotype of straight females being rescued by straight males (a trope this Belle kicks to the curb too).

Josh Gad, Luke Evans and Dan Stevens all give strong performances as LeFou, Gaston and the Beast respectively. Stevens brings a welcome charm and wit to the role, striking the perfect balance between brooding antihero and sensitive soul. The surprising exception to this competent cast is Emma Watson as Belle herself. Watson is, I suspect, a perfect fit for a real-life Belle in terms of appearance and general demeanour – on screen, however, she gives an unremarkable and occasionally stiff performance as the lead character. Nonetheless, this can perhaps be forgiven on account of the role at hand. Making Belle three-dimensional, both figuratively and literally, means giving her a depth and level of realism which sometimes fits awkwardly into her world of princes, magic and enchanted castles.

It’s a joy to watch and listen to – but in terms of substance, it was always going to be limited

The lead roles are supported by a team of screen legends including Stanley Tucci as Cadenza, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts. Kevin Kline takes the role of Belle’s father, Maurice, and gives it a warmth that the cartoon fails to convey (with the help of writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos). This Beauty takes special care to develop the personalities of its supporting characters, painting them as more than just animated furniture or riotous townspeople. The result is a more nuanced and substantial film – and a heart-wrenching scene of goodbyes when we come close to losing them.

So, how can Beauty be summarised? Not without referring to the original, that’s for sure – though we could separate the two, they were identical in almost every shot, and Disney made no pretence that the 2017 version was a stand-alone affair. Compared to the cartoon, this film was fantastical delight for the eyes, and made for easy viewing. The realistic effects made it easier than ever to be swept into the fairy tale. However, the very strong cast made Watson seem like a weak link; in a film so dependent on the believability of its beautiful princess, this was something of a problem. Beauty is a joy to watch and listen to – but in terms of substance, it was always going to be limited by the classic status of the original and the fact that it’s a simple fairy story after all.