Less remake than demake
Remakes always present a challenge for critics, especially remakes of widely seen films, since the obvious urge is to make insipid apples-to-apples comparisons between the two, rather than judge each movie on its own merits. Any critic who dismissed Brian De Palma’s Blow Out in 1981 because it wasn’t an Antonioni clone now looks like an inveterate hack. Even Gus Van Sant’s misbegotten Psycho remake presented unique invitations to comment on meanings and methods in film, rather than simply rehashing the rhyming plot points. (Most critics, naturally, declined the invitation.)
Bill Condon’s ghastly live-action remake Beauty and the Beast, on the other hand, practically pleads for comparisons to the 1991 Disney-animated feature. Rather than reimagining or recontextualizing an old Disney chestnut, this new Beauty and the Beast is essentially a scene-for-scene, beat-for-beat, note-for-note recreation of the original, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken songs and everything. That film, in turn, is based on an 18th-century French fairy tale adapted numerous times before, most notably by Jean Cocteau, but the 1991 animated film is the only version given any weight here.
This latest incarnation is a high-gloss recycle job, designed to do nothing more than massage your nostalgia sensors for two interminable hours. The problem for Condon and company is that every single scene in their remake pales in comparison to the animated feature—every place that Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s enchanting animated feature is fun and magical and nimble, this slavish remake is bloated and smug and clumsy. Most of the film’s myriad issues center around cynical adaptation envy—this is a film that wants to stand on the shoulders of giants, while still acting like it’s winning the dunk contest.
As Belle, the fiercely intelligent and independent peasant girl who takes her father’s place as prisoner in the Beast’s haunted castle, Emma Watson has all the beauty and smarts for the part but none of the spark. She’s an airless and joyless actress, often contributing little more than a recitation of the script, and her Belle ends up more grumpy than feisty, more resigned than smitten. Extra storylines add very little—there’s no pressing reason to see scenes from the Beast’s pampered childhood, or learn the back story of Belle’s mother, other than to pad the running time.
The biggest issue with Beauty and the Beast still has to be Condon, a flat-footed director who previously brought the film adaptation of Dreamgirls to lifelessness—his bland and cramped approach to the movie musical makes Rob Marshall look like Vincente Minnelli. This is an ugly film, devoid of style or personality, and strangely claustrophobic to boot—the movement of human actors in the frame is generally restricted to a couple of steps or a kick and twirl (probably due to extensive green-screen work), while the myriad CGI characters all do backflips and acrobatic interpretive dances.
It’s a jarring juxtaposition, but bad decisions and unappealing images are all that Condon’s remake has to differentiate itself from the Disney original.