by Michael Henley
There are wondrous sights and marvelous pleasures to be had within Disney’s new version of Beauty and the Beast, so long as you are comfortable with the nagging feeling that you’ve seen some of them before. Is it possible to see this new film, handsomely directed by Bill Condon and costing an upwards of 200 million, and not at every moment think of the 1991 Disney cartoon? I suppose it is possible, but only if you have never seen the cartoon. Here is a remake so slavishly devoted to an original—right down to its costuming and camerawork—that to compare them almost seems redundant. At every moment, this is a film that invites the comparison itself. It practically dares you to call it a forgery.
So what are we to do with this new version of Beauty? I suppose the only solution is to just judge it as a film, which is trickier than it sounds when the movie spends so much time referencing other ones. The greatest of all film fantasies is Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast, and Cocteau, who had a keen eye and a strong visual sense, would have wept to see this film, where the endless gardens outside the beast’s enchanted castle glisten in the cold moonlight, while inside the staircases and buttresses and towers swoop and spiral and stretch. In ’91, Disney made embellishments to both the original fairy tale and to Cocteau, and told the story the only way they could: animation. Now, thanks to technological improvements, you can tell a story with the same visual ambition in live action, and for some that will be enough of a reason for this version to exist.
And the film takes pains to distinguish itself, at times. There are changes to the story that make sense, additional characters that have a certain logic to them, and more dignity bestowed to some of the more cartoonish elements of the original. There’s an expanded role—in negative space, at least—for the backstory of our heroine’s mother. And it even starts with a fleshed out prologue, where we get a glimpse of the Beast when he is just a spoiled prince, and get a taste of his horrific transformation.
By beginning this way, the film evolves from the original template into more of a two-hander, which is wise, because performance-wise, this time around we get a stronger beast (Dan Stevens) and a weaker Belle (Emma Watson). To say Watson is bad in the role is unfair, especially when you consider her job is to live up to a role voiced to perfection, in ’91, by Paige O’Hara. But Watson’s Belle is vacant and placid. She lacks spunk and vivacity, and seems wise but not worldly. This is unfortunate, especially when compared to the good work that Stevens does as the Beast, evoking rage, trepidation, hope, heartbreak and resignation in all the right proportions. His performance, as is de riguer these days, is aided by CGI trickery, and some will say it didn’t work for them. It did for me.
Inside the Beast’s castle is a galaxy of stars all transformerd into various house fixtures. The animated characters are overdesigned in a way that recall the Transformers movies and their obsession with busy, moving parts; they lack the direct simplicity of their animated counterparts. But the voice acting shines through: Ian McKellen as the fussy clockwork Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as the warm and friendly tea kettle Mrs. Potts, Stanley Tucci as a prideful harpsichord, and even Ewan McGregor as the French candlestick Lumiere (his accent is pure Pepe Le Pew, but to be fair, Jerry Orbach in ’91 was channeling Maurice Chevalier, so some exaggeration is part of the role).
And there are other performances that work just right. We have Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, taking a role that was all cartoonish buffoonery and making it thoughtful and dignified. And while Gaston (Luke Evans) is still a sadistic and sexist pig who with his molden physique and plastic-looking hair more than ever resembles an action figure, Evans lands just on the right side of caricature, and meanwhile his sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) has been reimagined as a smart-but-gullible sycophant with a gradual attack of conscience (although the much-ballyhooed moments of progressive sexuality, one of which happens to Gad, are sadly much ado about barely-anything).
The new Beauty is at its best, for my money, when it’s quietly expanding or adorning the ’91 original, and less so when it’s trying to exactly replicate its joys. This extends to the songs, all of which are probably unnecessary this time around. The opening table-setting number, “Belle,” is disastrous for a few reasons, but a key one is because the direction tries to leadenly achieve a cartoonish rhythm, and although the famous “Be Our Guest”sequence, faithfully kept here, may try to match the energy and flamboyance of the original production, it cannot and does not. The numbers that work best are “Gaston,” which captures a different beer-hall energy than the original, and Thompson’s rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” which actually manages to outdo the original’s magical ballroom sequence in both spectacle and sweetness (and one of the rare moments that Watson actually gives the production her all and quits her aloofness).
Is Beauty and the Beast the best of this new line of Disney remakes? Not by a long shot. It lacks the heft and humanity that Kenneth Branagh brought to 2015’s Cinderella or Jon Favreau brought to The Jungle Book, both of which felt free to reinterpret (as opposed to the terrible Alice in Wonderland or Maleficent, both of which just wanted to throw out everything about their sources that people liked). Beauty sits square in the middle, mostly due to its intentions; rather than revising the original material or destroying it, this one just wants to embroider. Which has its place, and some of its choices are fun. But throughout it all, I just couldn’t help but feel that Beauty and the Beast was wholly unnecessary. Because Disney has already made a wonderful version of Beauty and the Beast, and now they’ve mostly just made a pretty entertaining copy.
PASSENGERS: In which Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence fall in love on a spaceship. I missed this in theaters last year but caught wind of its icky sexual politics. Seeing how it actually plays in the film…yeah, boy, are they icky. But more than that, the film is rather dull and lifeless, and the performances in this two-hander are decidedly out of whack, but maybe that’s because the script asks these characters to jump through moral hoops that Lawrence and Pratt, as talented as they are, simply can’t resolve in their heads.
Key moment in this overall failure, and a marker of exactly how much credit the screenwriters give you, the audience: when Pratt, awakening on the spaceship, sees Michael Sheen as the ship’s bartender, and then discovers, in a shot that unmistakably communicates this, that he is a robot. Then Pratt, in a line to no one, says “Oh, you’re a robot.” But that’s the kind of movie that Passengers is: one that wants to underline the stuff it wants to make sure you get and is also more than willing to tap dance around the things it doesn’t want you to think about.
ASSASSIN’S CREED: This adaptation of the Ubisoft video game series is well-produced gobbledygook. I’ve played some of the video games but always tune out their story, which is a patchwork of DaVinci Code-esque secret societies and MacGuffins linked the dubious science fiction involving laughable concepts like “genetic memory.” What the games excel at are having an excuse so that you can time travel into detailed maps of ancient cities in their prime, allowing you to run around, say, Rome during the Renaissance as if you were actually really there.
Well, what the movie decided we need was more sci-fi stuff and less time travel, so much so that it barely does anything with the Spanish Inquisition past setting. Instead, lets hang out in a building where evil conspiracies are afoot and weird technology is everywhere. Michael Fassbender does his best to survive the madness, and the film is well-directed, sort of, but Justin Kurzel, but much like the adaptation Kurzel directed of MacBeth (also with Fassbender and Marion Cotillard starring), this is all style, no substance, but at least in this case there’s no actual substance being suppressed. Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Irons and Michael K. Williams all show up for inexplicable reasons.