Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is the latest in a series of live-action remakes of animated Disney classics, following last year’s The Jungle Book (unseen by me) and 2015’s Cinderella. The source material for these films, especially the fairy tales, is resilient enough to have survived countless adaptations and retellings over the centuries—maybe because there is, after all, no “original” version of “Cinderella,” variations of which exist in just about every world culture, or of “Beauty and the Beast,” the French lineage of which is attributable to as many as three different authors. So I’m disinclined to get too bent out of shape over this latest film version, which is manic, overstuffed, and exhausting, and which buries most of the charms of the 1991 version under two tons of ugly-looking CGI. (Even Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s award-winning songs don’t get away unscathed—they’re pimped out and auto-tuned almost beyond recognition.) I remind myself that it is simply one more version of a story the legs of which are long enough to outpace any Hollywood blockbuster.
There are some bright spots in the cast, though it’s difficult for them to dig themselves out from under the oppressiveness of the film’s mise en scene, which might best be described as “digital rococo.” Emma Watson makes for a clever if somewhat humorless Belle. Dan Stevens, Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor, and Emma Thompson contribute capable but mostly unremarkable voice- and motion-capture work as the Beast and his household staff of enchanted objects. Hammier—and more enjoyable—is Luke Evans as the pompous, swaggering Gaston, who glides through the film as if powered by the machine of his own vanity. The musical-theater geek in me was perhaps most excited to see Broadway legend Audra MacDonald, though she’s largely wasted in a minor role as a magical armoire.
It’s to the credit of this perennially beloved story (“tale as old as time”) that something about its power still comes through in spite of the many obstructions the filmmakers have put in its way. Though “Beauty and the Beast” is sometimes interpreted as an allegory about abusive husbands and patient, passive wives (with Beauty seen as suffering from Stockholm syndrome), I’ve always been inclined toward a more generous reading, one about the power of love to redeem and transform the unlikeliest of creatures, and about how that love can grow out of conflict, tension, and insecurity. Watching Belle and the Beast awkwardly navigate their first “date,” it’s impossible not to think of two nervous middle-schoolers at a semi-formal. (On the dance floor he’s so clueless that she ends up leading.) It’s one of the few moments in which, underneath the caked-on effects, the fidgety camerawork, the frantic editing, the relentless underscoring, the glitter and the makeup and the wigs, we’re able to feel something like magic.