It’s a tale as old as time, the song goes, and indeed, the fable of a beauty that tames the savage beast goes back to classical, fundamental storytelling. There are core elemental human building blocks to the story, too. Arrogance, unkindness and narcissism do not go unpunished, and a conceited prince is cursed to live all his days as a monster unless he learns to love and can act selflessly enough to be loved himself. But hey, this is a Disney film first and foremost, and maybe we shouldn’t expect these humanistic tendencies to be treated with even a little bit of emotional texture or gravitas. Especially not in the hands of director Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls,” both parts of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn”), a filmmaker not particularly adept with emotional clarity or human insight. But he does know pomp and pageantry, qualities that quickly unravel this overwrought remake.
Disney’s live-action redos of their animated classics have become another four-quadrant asset in the megastudio’s ever-growing portfolio. A now-annual event (“Maleficent” and “Cinderella” have arrived so far), each year, the mouse house takes stock of its wares and puts a new property into production. Obviously, this year it’s the live-action retelling of “Beauty And The Beast” and as directed by Condon, the unnecessary effort is a monstrosity of bombast and melodrama that drowns out the picture.
Essentially a note-for-note remake the beloved 1991 animated version, the same songs and all (plus a few mediocre new ones), there’s little vivacity in ‘Beast’ aside from the always-charming Emma Watson, who elevates the flat, by-the-numbers material as best she can. The story is the one you know, with the aforementioned curse told in prologue, before following Belle (Watson), a magnetic and intelligent young girl who is out of place in her boorish township. The oafish Gaston (Luke Evans) wants to have her hand in marriage, but a series of unfortunate events lead her to the Beast (Dan Stevens), a cantankerous creature who has given up all hope and imprisons her for all time in exchange for her father’s (a game Kevin Kline) freedom. The rest, as you likely know, is a slowly unfolding romance and the normalizing of a monster.
Taking all its cues from the animated movie beat for beat, this “Beauty And The Beast” takes those same elements and stretches them out for an unbearable two hours and does little to infuse the movie with enchantment or a justification to exist other than keeping Disney’s money-making machine churning. The obnoxious Gaston and his unctuous life partner Le Fou (Josh Gad) initially deliver some amusement in the film — the so-called heroes’ haughtiness balancing what is a serious narrative that isn’t as light on its feet as it should be — but the movie quickly returns to a familiar routine.
While “Beauty And The Beast” has a few moments when the romance begins to sparkle (again, thank you Emma Watson), Condon’s movie is essentially missing the effervescence, charm, and fairytale magic of the original. While there’s little that could save the picture, the visual effects are the movie’s Achilles heel. Visual effects have become astonishing these days, and films like “The Jungle Book,” “Life Of Pi,” and “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” have finally gotten over the hump of making animals look photo-realistic. But even with Industrial Light And Magic’s handiwork, the VFX here inspires little awe. Worst of all, Dan Stevens’ Beast is never convincing, nor connects emotionally. Overall, the CGI isn’t as piss-poor as what Condon rendered in the ridiculous-to-look-at “Twilight” films, but some of the action scenes are subpar by today’s standards — strange for a Disney film that looks like it cost a fortune otherwise. Most crucially, the bland effects really kill the delightful anthropomorphic animated characters that gave the original movie many of its entertaining appeal. The candlestick Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), the teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and Garderobe (Audra McDonald) all lack visual allure.
Yearning to be a classic, MGM-like musical with a similar soaring grandeur, Condon’s proclivities for pomposity make for overblown songs — especially in the third act — that sound noisy, strained and histrionic. Restraint and subtlety are not terms within Condon’s filmmaking vocabulary. And while many of the massive practical sets and costumes are impressive on a production-design level, there are few other elements worth lauding. Ultimately “Beauty And The Beast” feels like a cynical rehash seemingly created just to make a fiscal year sound promising to shareholders. This is a product that’s more manufactured than inspired. [C-]