Disney's new, unimproved Beauty and the Beast makes a tale as old as time creakier, feeling lifeless despite its flesh-and-blood casting.
Bill Condon's live action remake of 1991's animation landmark is a puzzling contradiction, musically dutiful to its source yet shunning the original's shimmering magic. This movie is drab, its setting somewhere in the vicinity of Transylvania, its narrow color scheme strangled by tinted 3-D glasses.
In animated form, Beauty and the Beast widened our eyes in wonder. Here we peer at bluish-gray blurs. The petal-shedding rose wilts even after resurrection; the beast's transformation barely gets off the ground. Side-by-side comparison of practically any scene leans in the original's favor.
On paper or whatever Disney's accountants use these days, Beauty and the Beast is a no-brainer after other 'toon-to-human retreads clicked. Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman composed a great modern musical worthy of an encore. Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as the cursed prince/beast are easy on the ears and eyes, when we can clearly see them.
Yet Condon believes sure-fire material needs more. His version runs a butt-numbing 45 minutes longer, padded with needless new songs and back stories better left untold. The fantasy's conversion from then-state-of-the-art animation to pixel overload isn't flattering; enchanted furniture shouldn't appear so grotesquely Burton-esque.
Beauty and the Beast does offer a measure of acting pleasures: Watson puts a lovely face and voice on an animation icon. Stevens' digitized makeup allows the overgrown kid side of the beast's personality to sneak through. Kevin Kline always provides comfort in disappointing movies. Josh Gad makes a fine, funny Le Fou, his heralded "gay moment" is a Disney flick seeming anticlimactic after several previous allusions in the script.
On the other hand, Luke Evans is miscast as the egotistical Gaston, not playing enough into the character's vanity. The role requires a comical awareness of looking like but not being "all that," which Evans doesn't seem to possess. Channing Tatum has it. Beauty and the Beast needs it from whomever.
The movie's clearest betrayal of its source is Condon's rendition of the beast's castle furnishings, so ornately inexpressive. Ewan McGregor's fake French accent as Lumiere the candelabra turns Be Our Guest into a easy invitation to decline. His character is designed to distraction, like Ian McKellen's Cogsworth the clock. Only the china-fine relationship of Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and teacup Chip (Nathan Mack) recall the original's sweetness.
Beauty and the Beast was a hairy proposition from the start, trying to repackage lightning instead of letting it strike twice, which never happens. With each musical reprise and imitated frame, Condon continues a fight of comparisons he can't win. Either imitate a classic faithfully or leave out the songs and make your own version. Or just leave perfection alone. Be my guest.
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