Disney’s current spate of live-action remakes of their own classic animated movies can be seen as a money-printing exercise, but most of these films have convincingly justified their own existence. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland explored new 3D technologies and dug into the source material, while Maleficent fully embraced the darkness at the heart of Sleeping Beauty by borrowing ideas from Wicked. Cinderella was actually about Cinderella rather than a family of mice, and The Jungle Book, which is the best of the bunch, enriched the mythos of a familiar world by keeping some classic elements of the original, while still resolutely carving its own path. So how does Beauty and the Beast fare among such company? We all love the original, but is the new one any good?
I’ll try and illustrate the main issue the film has by comparing it to 2015’s Cinderella, which is probably its closest forbear. It is 25 minutes longer than the original, and most of that extra screen time colours in the backstories of Cinderella and the Step Mother, enriching the emotional arcs of the story surprisingly effectively. By contrast, the new Beauty and the Beast is a full 40 minutes longer than the original, even though it basically follows the original’s story beat-for-beat.
Where does all that extra time go? Well, firstly the songs themselves are literally slowed down—particularly egregious is the falteringly slow finale of ‘Gaston’. ‘Be Our Guest’, even though it’s the best Disney song ever (yes it is, you know it is), ironically outstays its welcome. As for the script, the screenwriters try to add extra plot to everything—it feels like they’ve just chucked material at a wall to see what sticks.
In particular, lots of extra time is paid to Gaston and to the cursed inhabitants of Beast’s castle. This serves to sideline Belle as a main character, despite the little bits of extra backstory she’s given. Emma Watson is certainly beautiful as Belle, and throws herself into the role admirably, but her singing voice is auto-tuned beyond belief and she simply isn’t given much to do. Yet her chemistry with the Beast is very sweet, and Dan Stevens does a fine job in the role.
The rest of the incredible assembled cast are also mostly wasted. Ian McKellen barely registers as Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson is an oddly irritating Mrs Potts—though neither of them are helped by their unattractive designs.
In fact, the production design for the whole film is frankly uninvolving. The sets feel incredibly artificial, the costumes even more so, and the omnipresent CGI highlights the falseness of the world more often than it convinces or delights.
Surprisingly, Ewan McGregor is pretty great as Lumière, however he is outshone by Luke Evans’ Gaston. In a stellar performance, he takes one of the original’s most problematic elements and makes him both completely believable and also an absolute hoot to watch.
Beauty and the Beast is ultimately a serviceable dose of weaponised nostalgia, as Disney pull out all the stops (in the most expensive movie musical ever made) to try and tug at your heartstrings and drain your wallet. My advice? Stay at home, and watch the original: the best thing this remake does is remind you how great the 1991 classic is.