It’s the take as old as time. Yes, Beauty and the Beast’s love story can be read as a tale of abuse and brainwashing, of a woman imprisoned by a tyrant until she starts chatting with the table settings — and then, as seasons pass, chastising herself in song for not having earlier noticed her fearsome jailer’s sweetness.
Remember, though, that the creators of Disney’s shimmering animated pleasure, the most perfectly shaped film of the studio’s late 1980s and early 1990s renaissance, weren’t dummies. Perhaps recognizing the Bluebeard nastiness of the scenario, they dared something Uncle Walt only had allowed once in his animated features, way back in 1955’s Lady and the Tramp: actually showing the lovers in a Disney love story discover that they love each other. 1989’s The Little Mermaid resorted to a crab singing cabaret to convince that simp Prince Eric to smooch the ginger mute in his dinghy — not that she’d shown him, by that point, any trait besides a wide-eyed pliability.
In Disney’s original Beauty, Belle and her Beast come to know each other over time and a showtune, strolling through the gardens of his crumbled palace, feeding birds and tossing snowballs. Not only do they have traits — not always a guarantee among the studio’s fate-betrothed princes and princesses — but those traits match up. No matter how poisoned the setup, the romance that blooms between these two, captured in elegant rhyme and line work, proves more persuasive than in most Hollywood love stories.
The best that can be said for Bill Condon’s clamorous live-action remake of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast: It sets aside a couple of its 129 minutes to allow Belle (now Emma Watson) and her waistcoated bison-man to find a new point of connection. Now they both love reading — last time, the Beast was illiterate — and a few weeks into her captivity he gives her access to his library.
Later, though, when they take up those garden walks, she again lofts a snowball at him, and in response he clobbers her with a snow boulder, knocking her to the ground. It’s played for laughs, more cartoonish than anything in the cartoon, and proof that Condon and co. aren’t as shrewd about judging their material as Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who directed the original. Shouldn’t a Disney Beauty and the Beast downplay the suggestion of physical abuse?
Other confounding choices in the new film: Why include flashbacks to Belle’s mother dying of the plague? Why allow the words in the comic showstopper “Gaston” to mush together into incomprehensibility — NO ONE blah LIKE GASTON blahblahblah LIKE GASTON!? Why aspire for photorealism in depicting the castle’s talking tchotchkes, denying the simple expressiveness of the original’s clock (now voiced by Ian McKellen), candlestick (Ewan McGregor) and teapot (Emma Thompson)?
That last decision adds some minor tension to the early scenes of hostage Belle exploring the Beast’s palace: What physics tells us about china and stone means that now Chip, the tiny teacup, seems to risk a shattering death each time he hops from table to floor. And the clock, Cogsworth, serves as a perfect metaphor for the production itself: The movie’s just as poky and lumbering as he is while huffing up the staircase to escort Belle to her bedroom. What kind of fantasy is that? Has any child ever dreamed of walking really slowly for hours so a timepiece can keep up?
The strain proves most wearying in the production numbers, which cut from one cluttered shot to the next with little continuity of motion. We see that Condon (Chicago, Dreamgirls, the better Twilights) has marshaled dancers and extras, but we don't see with any clarity what they're doing. A battle between villagers and the palace's knickknacks plays like a trailer for itself, a series of inventively violent images excised from a presumably coherent cut.
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The performers do what they can. Watson has mastered both fierce independence and pleased surprise, the character's key elements. The movie never quite makes clear why Belle, reputedly its most beautiful woman, has won the ire and suspicion of her town. Apparently all it takes is an interest in books and a desire to see the world, which suggests the screenwriters (Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos) might have intended some red-state satire. But the treatment here is too confused to make sense, much less signify — Belle gets upbraided just for teaching a kid to read.
Kevin Kline twinkles behind whiskers in the role of Belle's dad. Luke Evans as Gaston is the standout, a parody of toxic masculinity who’s cartoonish in the right way — he embodies the hand-drawn original as persuasively and hilariously as Granville Owen once did Li’l Amber. Evans and Dan Stevens, who rumbles alluringly as the Beast, have the trickiest roles: Both characters slip, as the plot demands, between villain and romantic hero, one in a comic register and the other tragic. Their fates still work out the same way they always have, in a rooftop showdown that absolves hero and heroine of any responsibility for the heel's dispatch.
This time, though, it's longer, louder and much more work to track with the human eye. As for the “gay moment” that has outraged the globe’s greatest idiots: It’s pretty much that beat from the prom scene at the end of ‘80s teen movies, where the nerd meets and then dances with a girl who looks just like him, except now both nerds are men. It’s cute, and Josh Gad scores some laughs in his role as Gaston’s lackey/hype man, but it’s not enough to lighten this beast. Condon and his team have alchemized gold into lead.
Beauty and the Beast
Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Emma Thompson, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Audra McDonald. Directed by Bill Condon. Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. Rated PG. 139 minutes. Opens Friday, March 17.