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Movie review: Disney goes all out in latest version of 'Beauty and the Beast'

It hasn't exactly affected a huge number of people but word's been out for a while that there's been a bit of trouble in the marketing of Disney's big new semi-live action version of "Beauty and the Beast."

The biggest part of The Selling of B and The B is that Beauty Emma Watson, the beloved Harry Potter heroine Hermione, is, off-camera, an avid and outspoken feminist. She took a break from Brown University because her star status exposed her to "bullying" she didn't expect. And she has, in life, been photographed wearing T-shirts emblazoned with slogans of a sort they don't sell on the premises at Disney World.

Watson is, in other words, an authentic, bright, 25-year old movie favorite and beauty in the 21st century. She is, by no means then, an easy cog to fit into the kind of giant publicity machine usually required by a Disney animated spectacle as big and as labored over as "Beauty and the Beast."

You will, no doubt, remember that the original 1991 Disney animated version was such a smash hit that they took it to Broadway, where its movie-to-stage success became the template for much that came after. It must have made perfect sense in the aeries of Disney management to do one more major shape-shifting of B&B as a "live action" movie, i.e. one with equal parts live action performance and CGI (as was done before in "101 Dalmatians").

A staggering amount of skill and dogged dedication went into the making of "Beauty and the Beast." If, as the ancient saying used to be, Hollywood is America's "Dream Factory," then "Beauty and the Beast" is nothing if not the Disney equivalent of "heavy industry."

I don't think there's a living soul who will accuse this whole movie of lightness of spirit or quicksilver fantasy -- not the way they did the purely animated original. Parts of it work that way, but not all that many.

And thereby hangs one obvious question: Why decide to do it this way at all? The answer is twofold and obvious: 1) because they can and 2) it is another virtually guaranteed way to register nine-figure box-office doing it.

Consider it the industrial art Hollywood equivalent of what rolls off the assembly lines in Detroit as Cadillacs and Lincolns. No matter how snobbish, the most purist automotive savants might want to get about Cadillacs and Lincolns, both provide awfully smooth riding cars.

"Beauty and the Beast" is the industrial art of Disney at its most dedicated and heavy-footed but just as do Lincolns and Cadillacs, the movie provides an awfully smooth and luxurious ride from Point A to Point B.

Zippy? No. As light as it tries to be in its first 45 minutes, the sight of talking clocks, candlesticks, teapots, teacups and harpsichords isn't nearly as much fun in CGI as it was originally in good-old-fashioned imagination. I must admit, though, that when the action gets wilder and wilder, the big production number "Be Our Guest" is pretty cool. And the big conflict has one sight gag -- the keys on a harpsichord turning into bullets from a kind of instant Gatling gun -- has a sort of litheness of imagination the whole movie needed a lot more of.

The story of 'heroic" Gaston (Luke Evans) and his tubby "comic" sidekick (Josh Gad) is, at first, nothing but an obstacle to get through before the actual story of Beauty and the Beast arrives.

Which is far too long. We know that the nasty, selfish prince, early on, will be transformed by an enchantress, into a hairy, ugly beast nearly 8 feet tall unless he can find love (both pitching AND catching). But what remains insoluble throughout the movie is that his inamorata Belle begins the movie by wanting to get out of her provincial hometown as soon as possible and then, as the movie ends, sticks around after the audience discovers how awful her hometown really is. It's lovely that Belle and the Prince live happily ever after, of course, the way fairy tale people should, but personally I'd have voted for a change of venue.

Once the actual movie plot arrives, and Beauty and the Beast need to fall in love to break the Beast's spell, the movie, however heavy, does indeed work a little magic. You have to love a formerly narcissistic prince who, upon meeting the bookish girl of his dreams, immediately gives her his entire library, which takes up most of his castle's first floor. There's a generous fellow.

And, of course, a sweet and lonely and deserving one at heart, underneath all the hair and beastly brutality. (Another nice touch: When, on dining, Belle encounters the Beast slurping his soup, directly from the bowl, she does the same. A dopier movie would have had him learning his lesson and instantly transferring to a soup spoon.)

Kevin Kline plays Belle's well-meaning but somewhat burdensome Daddy and Emma Thompson plays the Teapot part originally played in the animated version by the voice of Angela Lansbury. It's fun to see Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald, ever-so-briefly show up at the movie's beginning and end before the middle finds them effaced by CGI.

Movies seldom try as hard to please you as "Beauty and the Beast." And, however lacking it turns out to be in nimbleness or grace, it does, after all, succeed.

Beauty and the Beast

Three out of  four stars

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

Director: Bill Condon

Running Time: 129 minutes

Rating: PG for action violence, peril and a few frights involving wolves that will be tough for the littlest ones.

The Lowdown: Disney gives us a new version of the ancient fairy tale, this one a combination of live action and computer graphics.

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