More than any of the other recent live-action adaptations of Disney’s animated canon, Beauty and the Beast seems reluctant to stray in any way from the original. This is understandable, given the regard for the 1991 animated film. Keeping the narrative foundation intact pretty much ensures that this film wouldn’t be terrible. But it also invites comparison, and this is where the film really suffers. There are some things that animation does better than any combination of live action and CGI. This thoroughly lavish production feels less expressive, less emotive than the cartoon. It is not bad, but its unwillingness to forge its own identity makes it pretty inessential.The story is exactly the same: Belle (Emma Watson) is a young woman in a provincial French village, marked as odd by the other villagers because of her love for books and adventure. Her father (Kevin Kline) accidentally discovers a ruined castle in the middle of the forest, and picks a single rose from a garden. It turns out that the castle is home a cursed beast (Dan Stevens), who imprisons him for his theft of the flower. Belle comes to her father’s rescue, and offers to take his place. She becomes the beast’s prisoner, but she is immediately made more welcome by his house staff, who are all cursed to take the form of various housewares, and see Belle as their last chance to break the spell.The additions are minor at best. There are a few new songs by Alan Menken and Tim Rice, and they’re pretty good. The film expands a bit on Belle’s parentage, and offers a glimpse of the Beast’s life prior to the curse. The film’s much touted progressivism is surface level at best, and a little dubious at worst, bordering on offensive tokenism. Overall, the film keeps the original pretty much intact, and that’s not a bad thing, really. The 1991 film is beloved for a reason, and its narrative foundation proves to be as solid today as it was all those years ago.So then the question is, what does the film gain in moving to live action? And the answer is: not much. In fact, it loses a little something. A character like Lumiere, for example, in spite of an animated physical performance from Ewan McGregor, feels pretty stiff. Because of how the character is designed for this live action version, with basic human proportions, we basically don’t get to see the character’s face very much. In general, the character designs feel a little off, the film choosing to go ornate when it should be trying to highlight the inner humanity of these household objects.Everything just feels stiffer, a little less lively. In spite of the all the resources that must have been poured into this, it just doesn’t carry the same energy. And since the film is longer than the original, this hurts a little bit more. Emma Watson is okay as Belle, though she doesn’t quite display the kind élan that this character really ought to have. Dan Stevens is buried under the CGI Beast, and in spite of his best efforts, he isn’t able to overcome the cold digital appearance of the character. Kevin Kline and Luke Evans land the most memorable parts, both fully embracing the cartoon roots of their roles.And having said all that, Beauty and the Beast still isn’t bad, really. The story remains intact, and the minor additions do succeed in making some of its elements feel a little rounder. But whereas the 1991 film felt like a culmination of something, or a new standard for what can be done with animation, this version is just that: a version. The 1991 film still exists, and it will likely endure as the definitive take. The story’s heroine yearns for more than what is already out there. This film would have done well to do the same.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST OPENS IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE ON MARCH 16.