Sunday, April 16, 2017

Film Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci
Rating: PG
Genre: Family, Musical, Fantasy
Runtime: 2 hr. 9 min.

Let me start off this review by stating the obvious. The original Beauty and the Beast is an animated classic. It was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards. It also stood a chance of winning that coveted title had Silence of the Lambs not released that year. The animation is revolutionary, and still looks magnificent in the remastered blu-ray versions. The ballroom sequence is one of those moments in filmmaking that's breathtaking and forces even the most critical of filmgoers to simply sit quietly in awe. In short, this newly released live-action adaptation has a lot to live up to.

Beauty and the Beast starts things off on a familiar note with the narrated tale of a priviliged Prince (Dan Stevens) whom denies shelter to an elderly hag. Of course, this individual is a beautiful enchantress in disguise who then curses the Prince and the other pampered attendants of his party. Turned into a Beast, the Prince must now hope to find true love before his 21st birthday or the castle will crumble under the spell and his attendants forever turned into household items. In the new film this moment is played out in a more extravagant series of events -rather than the simpler stained-glass motif- and showcases the film's first major departure from the original feature.

The film sticks to a predictable path as we meet Belle (Emma Watson), Gaston (Luke Evans), LeFou (Josh Gad), and Belle's father, Maurice (Kevin Kline). A tremendous ensemble (made moreso by the addition of the castle inhabitants, more on that below) the cast in filled with star-studded and commendable actors. Watson's vocals, however, do not quite lift beyond the music during this opening composition, and while she is definitely trying her best, it is a minor disappointment in what is otherwise one of the better choreographed and shot sequences in the film.

The rest of the cast is mostly able to hit their high notes, though Luke Evans also struggles at times to hit the deeper notes required. Evans also lacks the traditional build of Gaston, so it's a bit offputting when you see him lift not only a fair maiden, but the substantial LeFou as well. Still, it doesn't get in the way of the film's themes so those who have been complaining about that aspect of the casting should sit easy. Josh Gad, while admittedly overwrought as an actor, is the most practiced singer of the whole bunch and even though his pipes don't recieve the workout they deserve, he more than stands as a musical highlight.

Belle's father leaves on a trip to the market (wherever that is) and ends up seeking out the castle for shelter from weather. Belle herself eventually makes her way to the castle to find her father imprisoned by the Beast. She takes her father's place in the prison cell, and the film continues as expected minus a few additional songs and plot elements, which don't do much beyond pad runtime.

The familiar elements are mostly performed with aplomb, since the castle cast is also filled with droppable names like Ewan McGregor as Lumière the Candle, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth the Clock, and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts the Teapot. McGregor is particularly notable as his commanding croon envelopes the viewer during the spectacular "Be Our Guest" number. The whole affair is gorgeously animated with tongue and cheek references to the original -serously, why can't Belle actually get something to eat?- and might even top it in spectacle.

The realistic representation used for the household characters is brilliantly executed, but the realism is hindered when we come upon the Beast himself. The Beast is largely animated, which includes facial features. The result is not only unpleasant but distracts from the emotional connection we are to feel between Belle and the Beast as Watson struggles to interact with him. A minor use of prosthetics on the Beast, such as his mane or horns, would have gone a long way to making him feel more life-like. As it stands, the choice affects the most important seen in the whole film: the ballroom dance.

The eponymous song starts, but instead of the events on screen matching the song -as they do in the original- the music seems superfluous and exists only as something "emotional" to play over the event. The ballroom is drab with only a few flourishes instead of the gorgeous golden hall. The dancing sequence is messy as cuts are used in order to get the right shots between Belle and the Beast. The whole moment feels like an ordeal rather than cinematic and emotional. It's easily the biggest disappointment of the whole film.

Despite this, Dan Stevens does a fantastic job providing voicework to the Beast. His interpretation is spot-on, and the new solo song the Beast sings is definitely another highlight of the film. If only he wasn't impeded by the hollow use of animation.

The latter half of the film plays it safe, and the final battle in particular brings nothing new to the table. As I noted earlier, there are some additional scenes involving the enchantress, the fate of Belle's mother, and some new songs but none of them add up to anything worthwhile beyond stretching a brisk 90 minute tale to over two hours.

Beauty and the Beast builds upon the original Disney animated tale, but falls short of finding it's own foothold and becoming a truly relevant release. It's a beautiful film, but a fairly flat one, and the original remains my personal preferred version should I revisit this tale as old as time. 3/5

- The Catalyst

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