Beauty and the Beast (2017)

“Who could ever learn to love a beast?”

There’s a reason that the 1991 Disney film was the only animated movie ever nominated for Best Picture up until the category finally expanded. It’s a divine feature, lovingly told, the songs timeless and the characters unforgettably drawn. However, in the case of Bill Condon’s latest take on Beauty and the Beastthere is not more than meets the eye. What graces the screen is a decoratively blinding splendor, so glaringly gorgeous and whirling around like a dainty dervish, the dresses swept up in swells of movement. This is a stunning, crowning achievement of a film to look at (I predict costuming and set design nominations to come its way during the next awards run), but its bewildering and bemusing plot does not align with a live-action adaptation. Watching an animated woman fall in love with an animated beast lends itself to easy metaphors whereas a real woman falling for a realistically rendered beast borders on the lines of PG-rated bestiality. The best parts of this picture exist outside the title.

Belle (Emma Watson) is not long for her provincial life in a small town with small-minded people. She’ll run to the countryside and overlook hills like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, hoping for more and wondering what the rest of the world might hold. She’s the beautiful oddball of her community, frolicking around as an industrious, well-read, curious young woman who’s also a trophy wife of a vision to Gaston (Luke Evans), a nefarious and narcissistic former soldier in need of a challenge. By his side is LeFou (Josh Gad), the affectionate heart and brain of the operations, often over-shadowed by and sometimes even indulging in Gaston’s mighty brawn.

Belle doesn’t want the brute, nor does her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) ever wish to grant Gaston his blessing. But as the story goes, Maurice ends up missing, Belle tracks him down, and the two switch spots at the paws and in the confines of the Beast’s (Dan Stevens) castle. We’re given an excellently executed prologue to this film that enhances the entire story. The Beast used to be a handsome, young, Trumpian Prince who laughed at and mocked the lowly from his high chair, and thus came a curse from an Enchantress only to be lifted if he found requited love before a rose lost all its petals. Yet after this, Belle’s motivation to save her father feels clear while too simple. And that’s because we learn entirely too much about outsiders like Maurice. Although he’s the father-figure, his larger role here only adds filler without notes of depth. Additionally, Belle’s deceased mother enters the story to intertwine with the passing of the Beast’s own Mom. Beauty and the Beast expands the story while reducing the romance to an overthickened sauce, not to mention songs so horribly mixed you can hardly decipher the words.

This is Beauty and the Beast’s hamartia: it’s a film less concerned with convincing us of an unimaginable relationship and more preoccupied with convincing us of the believability of the world that this “romance” is set within. And by that account the oft stilted movie actually achieves high marks. This is 2+ hours of a living and breathing fairy tale (not unlike that of Jean Cocteau’s 1941 attempt at the French story). Whereas Cocteau preferred a certain poeticism and a naturalism because of his stunning film’s time period, Bill Condon directs Beauty and the Beast with aplomb and without enough restraint. The set pieces are delectable, blending the colors of Disney animations into real world structures. The film is ornate, as lavish as a theme park production, and the CGI effects – for the most part – are as fantastical as Fantasia. Yet I don’t understand how Condon and his crew settled for such a sub-par beast. The manimal looks detailed and impeccable in close-ups, but important long shots showing his entire body are so noticeably fake that you can’t help but realize Emma Watson is an actress dancing with an actor we don’t see. This dissonance leaves the emotional distance at an impass.

The main reason that Jean Cocteau’s 1941 stab at the material works so magically is because it’s told with such puzzling and mystical narratives. It’s a mesmerizing movie because – like David Blaine’s trickery or remarkable feats – we marvel at the gambit and wonder how / if it was really done. The ’91 animated feature stands the test of time not only because of its pure artistry, but because it’s so brisk and so utterly believable as a moving storybook. Beauty and the Beast is a lovely film, capable of laughter and charm and more scares than you’d expect for kids, but it revolves around pure muck. In a fantasy landscape, this level of sacrifice and a “tale as old as time” would seem praiseworthy. In Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, we might as well be watching and reading a telegram version of a 19th Century The Bachelor.

“Dear Belle,

You’re cute. We both like hardbound books. I once heard, ‘If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever. If it doesn’t, then it was never meant to be.’ By the way, please accept this rose, or else everyone is going to die because I used to be a privileged prick.

P.S. Want to dance later? (STOP).”

-The Beast

“She warned him not to be deceived by outward appearances.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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