When the history of Hollywood’s current creative stagnation is written, we very well might regard the new live action version of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” as the quintessential movie of the era. It is a remarkably efficient summation both of nostalgia’s culture’s strengths and its weaknesses. Like a newly illustrated edition of your favorite novel, “Beauty and the Beast” brings color and movement to a classic story, and that’s about it. I found myself enjoying it, and then convinced afterwards that what I had been enjoying wasn’t the film itself, but the ghost that inhabited it. “Tale as old as time,” indeed.
Like many movies I see nowadays, rehashing the plot is pointless. You either know it or else decided several sentences ago to stop reading this review. Let me say instead that those who love the 1991 film will be satisfied with what they see here. Bill Condon’s version is faithful to the animated movie, almost to the point of doggedness. Entire shots are precisely recreated, and a majority of the dialogue remains unchanged. Whether you think that’s good or bad depends almost entirely on what you want from a film like this. Will seeing exactly what you’ve seen before cause you to cheer? An entire generation of film studio CEOs are banking on it.
But, as I said above, nostalgia culture has its strengths. A film that’s as deeply embedded into our cultural memory as “Beauty and the Beast” is a prime candidate for some delightful interpretation. In this version, much of that delight comes from the casting and the visuals. All of the cast are well chosen (with one crucial exception; more on that in a second), but the great Emma Thompson and Ian McKellen stand above all others. Thompson’s rendition of the film’s title song is a perfect update of Angela Lansbury’s famous performance. McKellen has a lot of fun as the valet-cum-clock Cogsworth, and Ewan McGregor suprised me with his funny, silky (if a little obviously derivative) Lumiere. Visually, the film is breathtaking, as lush and vivid and flawless as probably any live action version of this story will ever be. Everything is in order.
Everything, that is, except for Emma Watson. Watson has been sadly and egregiously miscast as Belle. This isn’t for lack of trying, mind you; Watson is a beautiful, gifted actress and she tries hard here, but she never connects with the material, and the script demands so little from her that her talents never have a chance. The problem, I suspect, is that Watson has been chosen for her physical resemblance to the animated Belle, and her role was conceived as a flesh-and-blood stand in for a character the producers had no intention of reimagining. This is a major disappointment in a category the film shouldn’t have disappointed in.
What else can I say? You know what you’re getting here. The point of fast food is that you don’t have to wonder what you’re going to get. It may not be great, but you’ve had it before, and we don’t always have time to take risks. There’s nothing wrong with some occasional fast food filmmaking. But, if the reboot era has you stressed, it’s fine dining I suggest.