In 1991, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” became the first animated film nominated for the best picture Oscar. The studio’s live action and computer-graphic remake likely won’t have to worry about the Academy Awards.
Don’t misunderstand: It is a visually sumptuous, highly watchable extravaganza. It musically honors its earlier version, providing greatest-hits cover versions of the classic songs by Alan Menken, plus four originals. It welcomes a new generation of viewers with the “Harry Potter” audience appeal of Emma Watson in the progressive, quasi-feminist leading role. In short, the movie, directed by Bill Condon (of “Chicago,” “Dreamgirls” and two “Twilight Saga” entries), is fine.But it’s also less magical than what the studio achieved with two-dimensional illustrations a quarter-century ago. Watching it puts one in the mind of Belle’s obligatory marriage to the formerly brooding Beast once he returns to well-mannered human form. Wasn’t the relationship more interesting the way it was before?
The story remains faithful to the original narrative, a search for love balancing chaste purity and brutish effrontery in various forms. As Belle, Watson gives a revisionist dose of girl power clout to the role, making her as bookish and quick-witted as Hermione Granger. She is the inventive daughter of Maurice (Kevin Kline, his lengthy hair and beard a frenzy of 18th-century frizzies), who tinkers at windup music boxes. With her mother passed on, he protects their child carefully, perhaps a bit too cautiously for a plucky mademoiselle. She’s clearly prepared to venture into the world beyond her provincial village, but lovingly confined by her controlling cher papa.
When a sales trip puts Maurice in conflict with a onetime prince mysteriously turned enchanted Beast, he’s imprisoned inside its gothic castle. Belle sets out to free him, first confronting the Beast, then taking her father’s place as its captive. Before you can say “Stockholm syndrome,” she sees the decency beneath his animalistic exterior and begins to warm his icy heart. They even have a giggly snowball fight on the castle’s outdoor walkways.
Can their cross-species romance bloom before the last petal falls from a bewitched rose, the countdown clock for the curse that turned him feral (and his servants into a talking clock, candelabra and teapot)? Relax. They’re updating the tale, not rewriting it.
The emotional pull of old-school romantic fantasy is remarkably effective, and it’s improved by the subplot of egotistical Gaston, a wartime veteran intent to become Belle’s mate by any means necessary. This blustering, increasingly menacing macho beast of his own type is played by Luke Evans in entertaining numskull fashion. A pompous narcissist, he’s seemingly clueless about why his oh-so-warm helper, Le Fou (Josh Gad), wants to go from being Gaston’s faithful sidekick to his best friend forever and ever. When Le Fou’s not-very-surprising motivation is revealed, it’s much ado about nothing, as it should be.
As if to amp up the animated film’s handsome design, the photorealist computer imagery is a surreal swirl of rococo detail befitting a shop selling lavish French provincial clothing and housewares. More of that attention should have been directed to the acting.
Watson, a skilled performer, brings little fire to her role, developing apparent affection for the big animal rather than life-changing love. Her singing, a key to defining the character, is good but far from great. And as the Beast, Dan Stevens is a virtual invisible man, remaining hidden beneath a part wolf, part water buffalo false face. He adds considerably less value than Emma Thompson’s performance as a chatty maternal teapot.
I’m not suggesting they should have had more screen time to develop their characters. Running at a pokey two hours plus, it’s a full 45 minutes longer than the nimble earlier version. The new version is an underperforming example of more being considerably less.