Friday, March 24, 2017

Zaki's Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

If there's one thing the Disney company hasn't had any trouble with over its many decades, it's finding new ways to jostle its multitudinous catalogue of IPs around and getting brand new franchises to fall out. Between Pixar, LucasFilm, Marvel, not to mention Mickey, Donald, and all the rest, it's been an extraordinary run. And in recent years they've tapped yet another, an entirely new vein of Disney Dollars by taking the library of animated classics in the ol' vault, sprinkling some fairy dust on them, and turning them into live action spectacles.

This trend started with 2010's Alice in Wonderland and really kicked into gear with 2015's Cinderalla, but last year's The Jungle Book is the arguable peak for these productions thus far. You may recall that I was absolutely gobsmacked when I saw that one, and so it set the bar for my own expectations going into the Mouse House's latest animation/live action transmutation: Bill Condon's Beauty and the Beast, based on the beloved 1991 feature. Now, maybe it's unfair to expect one movie to measure up to the high bar set by another, but let's be honest, high expectations come with this particular territory regardless of which way you look at it.

After all, the 1991 Beauty and the Beast is not only one of the most cherished items in Disney's roster (arriving right in the middle of the studio's second golden age, with one animated mega-hit after another being churned out). It not only garnered considerable critical and box office acclaim upon its release more than a quarter-century ago, it's also the first animated flick in history ever nominated for Best Picture. As a result of this, while the mere existence of this new production guarantees audience buy-in, there's also the problem of being somewhat boxed-in as well.

Running down the particulars, the lovely Belle (Emma Watson, a better actress than singer) stands out from the crowd in her small French village in the eighteenth century. She's too beautiful not to catch the eye of haughty he-man Gaston (Luke Evans), and too intelligent and self-reliant to want to marry him. Of course, circumstances soon force her into the castle of the Beast (Dan Stevens), cursed to remain a horrible (well, "horrible") creature forever unless he can find someone to love him. And so the clock ticks down as we gamely wait as they check off boxes on the narrative "to do" list, winding down to its inevitable conclusion.

Condon (whose Chicago and Twilight credits probably helped him snag the gig by letting him put "proficient in musicals and mismatched love stories" on his resume) assembles an all-star cast including (Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, and Emma Thompson as the Beast's servants-turned-household items) to back up the two leads (though neither Watson nor Stevens feel like anything other than avatars -- placeholders -- for their earlier animated incarnations). Evans fares slightly better as the cartoonish Gaston, but Josh Gad's work as his sniveling sidekick has been overshadowed by the tempest over the character's supposed sexuality.

To some extent, once you link the words "Disney" and "Beauty and the Beast," there aren't very many avenues available as far as mixing up the expected formula (which is actually the same box they're in with their upcoming Lion King redo as well, now that I think about it). Because it's so iconic and so beloved, and you've already got the best version of that tale, which isn't so much "old as time" as it is "old as the first Bush Administration." As such, any deviation will be unwelcome, so the version they've made is pretty much the only version they could make. We have to see that famous ballroom dance, he in his blue topcoat, she in her golden gown. We have to hear "Be Our Guest," etc.

To that point, Condon deftly evokes the visual style of the animated version, preserving enough of what several generations have loved about it to allow this live action iteration feel both familiar and fresh. I'm not sure how well it'll play to an audience that doesn't have at least some familiarity with the prior incarnation, but that's probably not a particularly large constituency. We watch this for the known, not the new. Beauty and the Beast is a bit longer than it needs to be, but it's no less impressive for how lavishly and faithfully it recreates the milieu and aesthetic of the animated classic. Anyone who's watching knows exactly what they're getting...and that isn't a bad thing. B

For more talk about Beauty and the Beast, as well as a spoiler-filled discussion of Hugh Jackman's X-Men farewell in Logan and an interview with director Mark Pellington about The Last Word, catch the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:

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