Once upon a time, Disney was content to keep its animated canon alive by re-releasing its biggest titles theatrically every decade or so, which helped keep many of their most beloved classics…well, beloved. But in an era where even the use of the “Disney vault” means that plenty of people will have access to these films for years to come at home, Disney’s tried something new: recreating their classic animated films in live action. While they’ve tried this a few times over the past few decades (see: the 90s versions of The Jungle Book and 101 Dalmatians), the modern trend started back in 2010 with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and really kicked into gear with Maleficent, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty that turned one of Disney’s greatest villains into something more three-dimensional. Since then, Disney’s turned to other classics from decades ago, to varying results. A few things that these films have had in common, though, is that the originals came out no more recently than the 1970s, and the stories each film tells could use a significant modern update.
Now, though, Disney’s playing for a new sweet spot: millennial nostalgia. For their next film, Disney’s tackled a previous film that (prepare to feel old) is now over 25 years old: Beauty and the Beast.
For those of you familiar with the 1991 film, the plot should sound familiar. After turning away a beggar woman who turns out to be an enchantress, a young prince is transformed into the Beast (Dan Stevens), his servants are turned into objects that represent their positions, and he’s given a rose that will slowly die; if he can learn to love and be loved in return by the time the last petal falls, they’ll become human again. Years later, an inventor named Maurice (Kevin Kline) happens upon the castle and becomes the Beast’s prisoner. When his daughter, Belle (Emma Watson), comes to rescue her father, she takes his place as the Beast’s prisoner. The initially icy relationship between Belle and the Beast begins to thaw as she awakens the humanity within him. Maurice, meanwhile, tries to get help in his nearby village, but is initially dismissed by Gaston (Luke Evans) and his sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad).
When this version of Beauty and the Beast was announced, there were plenty of questions of how Disney would choose to adapt the story for this version. After all, the 1991 musical film has already spawned a wildly successful Broadway adaptation that added in plenty of new songs and some new details to the story. Would Disney in essence be adapting the Broadway version back to movie screens? No, not really. At 129 minutes, though, the film runs 1.5 times as long as the 84-minute animated film, so there are additions to the story. Rather than pull from the Broadway production’s musical numbers, the film brings in original composer Alan Menken and longitme Disney lyricist Tim Rice to add three new songs to the original set of songs, most of which have minor adaptations to fit the story.
Speaking of the story, while this version of Beauty and the Beast hits many of the same overall plot points, it does deserve credit for adding in some details that audiences have questioned over the past 25 years, including the nature of the enchantress’ curse: the Beast and his servants are essentially frozen in time, with the nearby village made to forget their existence. The film also takes aim at the feelings of the servants like Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellan) and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), who feel a sense of blame for not trying to stop the Beast from becoming the cruel man he is at the start of the film pre-transformation.
The film also makes some adjustments to the characters to freshen them up. While Belle was, at the time, among the more progressive Disney princesses, she’s more active in her own life here. The Beast, meanwhile, gets some intellectual heft: where the Beast of the animated film couldn’t read, this Beast is not only well-read, but able to engage in literary debate with Belle. Maurice is less inept and more overprotective of Belle, and a significant amount of the added story focuses on his attempts to get others to help him rescue Belle. As for Gaston, he’s still a bit of a cartoonish villain, but it’s less malevolent in the earlier scenes – and far more chilling once he agrees to try and entertain Maurice’s claims. In turn, LeFou’s relationship with Gaston takes on new dimensions: he’s still largely sycophantic, but there are signs he realizes Gaston is possibly going too far.
Between watching this film and writing this review, which spans a few weeks, I’ve had to acknowledge that I largely enjoyed the film, but I’ve also felt the nagging sense that something was off. What it comes down to are two things: the direction and the necessity. The former is something that’s easier to argue: director Bill Condon does some solid work, but it falls a bit short of the work that’s been done over the past few Disney adaptations by more skilled directors, namely Kenneth Branagh’s work on Cinderella. This is most apparent in the musical numbers, which include some of the best musical numbers in Disney’s wide collection. There’s a flatness to numbers like “Gaston” in their direction that fails to show just how lively these numbers are, and that’s a serious drag on the film as a whole.
With the latter, it’s more subjective. While I appreciate the changes that the filmmakers have made to the story, and the explanations that better explain certain aspects, there’s no denying that part of what makes 1991’s Beauty and the Beast is the briskness of the story. It’s hard to question (or at least care to question) some of the “gaps” in that film’s narrative because it propels itself forward at a breathtaking pace. That extra 40-something minutes here means that the film slows down, which is great for getting into some new details, but it also drags in a few instances.
I’ve argued this before, and I will again, even though I know it won’t stop anything: if Disney is committed to adapting their animated canon for new interpretations, the best ones to adapt are the ones that don’t hold up. Last year, they released two films – The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon – that were victims of the period in which they were released. The Jungle Book was able to add some much-needed intensity to the villainous animals Mowgli encounters, while Pete’s Dragon took the very basic concept of the story and put in something entirely new surrounding it. They were improvements. Beauty and the Beast may add some great new details into the story, but that’s not the same as an improvement on the 1991 film. There’s a little bit of magic that’s lost in the translation, and while the end result is still an enjoyable film, it ultimately doesn’t feel…necessary.