Review: “Beauty and the Beast” charms, never fully enchants

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Disney’s recent trend of remaking its animated classics has been successful because of the studio’s ability to find new angles on beloved tales. “Cinderella” added a dose of compassion and was anchored by a fantastic performance by Lily James. “Jungle Book” found new notes of menace and adventure. “Pete’s Dragon” brought soul to a silly, slapdash story. This approach has allowed these live-action remakes to stand proudly alongside, and sometimes above, their animated predecessors.

But what do you do when the source material is perfect?

That’s the challenge facing Bill Condon’s “Beauty and the Beast,” a live-action retelling of one of Disney’s crown jewels. It’s not only a fairy tale that’s inspired countless films and television shows (both directly and indirectly), but the 1991 version — the first animated film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar — has already been spun off into a straight-to-video sequel, an acclaimed Broadway musical, and several theme park shows and attractions. Can one more version really find something there that wasn’t there before?

Well, yes. Unfortunately, not all of it works.

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You know the tale (it is, of course, as old as time). Belle (Emma Watson) is a beautiful bibliophile living in a small French village with her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline). She’s looked at askance by the town folk, except for ruggedly dumb Gaston (Luke Evans), who pursues her despite her disinterest. When Maurice becomes the captive of a hulking Beast (Dan Stevens), Belle agrees to take his place and stay in the Beast’s enchanted castle, where a spell has not only created the monster but also turned all the servants into furniture and household objects. These servants hope that Belle might fall in love with the Beast, break the spell and turn everyone human again.

It’s a charming tale, and when “Beauty and the Beast” sticks to the basics, it works magically. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s songs are some of the best in the Disney canon, and the movie springs to life whenever one of the familiar tunes kicks in, whether it’s the sweeping opener “Belle,” the Busby Berkeley-inspired showstopper “Be Our Guest” or the rousing bar anthem “Gaston.” The lush production design often pulls directly from the animated film, recreating gorgeous moments that many have treasured since childhood. And the story’s primal pull makes it nearly impossible not to be swept away when the movie fires on all cylinders.

But Disney felt it necessary to pad out the tale and add backstory, expanding a simple, 90-minute love story into something that runs over two hours. Some of these changes aren’t bad; the added depth to Belle and Maurice’s relationship gives Kevin Kline far more screen time, always a plus. Some quiet moments between Belle and the Beast allow the central love story to breathe. But the decision to give both leads family trauma never quite works and makes the story drag. Likewise, a subplot that involves Gaston’s attempted murder of Maurice is inessential. The film also includes two or three musical numbers that weren’t in the original film or the play, none of which resonate. Whereas other Disney adaptations have worked well by taking a new look at old tales, “Beauty and the Beast’s” additions feel obligatory and take away from a story that’s perfect because of its simplicity.

And while that original story is still powerful, there are some missteps concerning the titular couple. Watson, in particular, never rises above adequate as Belle. Part of it is that her singing voice, while not bad, never really enchants. Condon seems to have cast her hoping that audiences would love her via Harry Potter shorthand; she’s playing another beautiful book-lover, and that seems to be all she needs to bring to the table. While Watson is fine, she never makes the role her own the way Lily James did in “Cinderella.” Stevens brings sincerity, vulnerability and humor to the Beast, but he’s buried under a blurry, plastic CGI job that’s baffling considering how beautifully all of the other special effect characters are rendered.

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But they’re countered by a fantastic supporting cast. Kline’s presence is always welcome, and he’s warm and funny as Maurice. Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Ian McKellan (Cogsworth), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette) are a blast as the castle’s cursed servants. But it’s Luke Evans as the villain Gaston and Josh Gad as his sidekick Le Fou who steal the show. Much (too much) has been made of Le Fou’s “big gay moment,” which literally amounts to two seconds of a dance scene at the finale. Lost in that is the fact that Gad, an actor who sometimes goes way too big, is really good. He’s funny, but also gives Le Fou a bit of shading as he starts to suspect he’s working with the bad guy. Evans, meanwhile, straddles the right lines of camp as Gaston, maintaining his preening idiocy but also keeping a sense of menace. The “Gaston” number is one of the film’s best moments.

It’s a moment that comes, of course, from the animated movie. And while “Beauty and the Beast” has its flaws, whenever it sticks to the bones of its source material it’s highly enjoyable entertainment. I wanted to applaud after “Be Our Guest,” and I challenge anyone’s heart not to be aflutter during Belle and the Beast’s ballroom dance. And I can’t decide whether that’s a good or bad thing. In the moment, it’s genuinely charming. But all of those great moments are rooted in the 1991 film, which is readily available on Blu-Ray. And while it’s unfair to compare most remakes to their predecessors, this new “Beauty and the Beast” is so beholden to the original that to remove anything familiar would delete the entire movie. It’s not just the familiar songs; whole scenes are recreated, down to the wardrobe. If you liked the original — and I’m a big admirer of it — you’re going to find a lot to enjoy here. But the 1991 movie is in no danger of being replaced.

In the end, I enjoyed this “Beauty and the Beast” despite its flaws, but the original will always be my go-to version. And I wonder about how Disney’s attempts to do live-action remakes of other classics (“Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” are all in the works) are going to shape up. “Beauty and the Beast”  charms because the original material is so strong; I worry that losing the animated beauty of those others will take something intangible from the films. They were able to hold onto the magic in places here; I worry they won’t be able to cast as strong a spell the next time.

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