The best and worst thing that can be said for Beauty and the Beast is that it beautifully recreates the animated source material.
A lot of love and affection went into Beauty and the Beast. The production design is amazing, a truly stylish blend of physical objects and computer-generated imagery to create something that feels like a hybrid between live action and animation. It is a very skillful blending of two different approaches to film making. On a purely technical level, judged as a mechanical adaptation, Beauty and the Beast succeeds triumphantly. It is a live action fantasia recreation of a beloved animated film.
More than that, Beauty and the Beast works largely because it is so effective an adaptation. Beauty and the Beast scores phenomenally well because it so carefully and precisely translates material that has incredible emotional power. There is a case to be made that the original Disney adaptation is one of the best films in the company’s canon, with some of the best songs and the most memorable set pieces. The live action adaptation ensures that very few of these moments get lost in translation, which lends the movie a compelling weight.
Unfortunately, it is also a reminder that a nigh-perfect adaptation of this version of the story already exists. Beauty and the Beast runs a muscular two-hours-and-six minutes to the animated film’s eighty-two minutes, but that statistic is misleading. The additions are pointless at best and distracting at worst. As a whole, Beauty and the Beast makes the animated original look like a more streamlined take on this tale that cuts a lot of the fat, telling the same story in a way that is at once more concentrated and more concise.
There are two questions that need to be asked when adapting a beloved animation like Beauty and the Beast from animation into live action. “Is it possible?” is the more pragmatic question, and a legitimate concern. The sorts of demands that Beauty and the Beast makes of its production team would have been difficult even ten years ago and impossible twenty years ago. A late nineties adaptation of the story would have looked horrible, perhaps even worse than a low budget direct-to-television adaptation would in this day and age.
Beauty and the Beast is immaculately constructed, just a piece of production. The film really capitalises on modern technology to create what is effectively a live action cartoon, a world populated by living actors and tangible props that intersects with effects that would be impossible to recreate practically. The twenty-first century has largely numbed audiences to the technical possibilities of contemporary special effects, but there is something truly impressive about the ability to allow Emma Watson to walk up a real set of classic stairs to a CGI beast.
However, there is more to Beauty and the Beast than simple special effects, and the adaptation does an excellent job of these elements as well. Emma Watson looks like she was always meant to play the lead in a live action fairy tale. Luke Evans is suitably boisterous as Gaston. Many of the songs are ported wholesale from the animated film, with special care taken to preserve lines like “I’m especially good at expectorating…” and “I use antlers in all of my decorating…” The film’s big musical numbers are all lovingly preserved and translated.
Naturally, there is some tweaking involved, but it is always graceful. The comedy hijinks of Gaston are somewhat downplayed, becoming its own wonderfully cynical gag about how inflated the eponymous character’s self-esteem must be. Be Our Guest preserves the music note-for-note, and reworks the visuals as a slightly heightened Las Vegas floor show. Beauty and the Beast is consciously stylised and cartoonish, but it is also conscious of what does and does not work when you put real actors in the frame.
Beauty and the Beast works very well, because it is a very careful adaptation of an animated film that also worked very well. The big emotional beats are translated note-for-note from those pencil drawings to this live action adaptation. The process almost plays like a reverse-rotoscoping. Moments of comedy and moments of heartbreaking emotional connection work just as well here as they did in the source material, something that is a credit to the attention paid to all of the finer details.
So Beauty and the Beast answers the challenge of “is it possible?” with a resounding yes. Unfortunately, there is one other question hanging over the film. “Is it justified?” This is arguably something of a loaded question, assuming that entertainment needs to justify its existence. Truth be told, all that is required of entertainment is to entertain. Anything else is a bonus. However, in the case of an adaptation so carefully composed, the real question is whether there is a reason to watch this version instead of just rewatching the animated source material.
Beauty and the Beast adds forty minutes to the runtime of original film. That is a considerable addition, just in terms of sheer mass; it is another half of the animated film. However, these forty minutes do not add much in terms of plot or in terms of context, there is nothing in the live action film that feels like a worthy addition to the story. Instead, it feels like a lot of padding or distraction. Beauty and the Beast is too colourful and lively to drag, but the addition of these extra minutes does slow the film down somewhat.
Some of these additions feel pointless, like a conspicuous attempt to extend the runtime. This is most obvious in the changes made to the thread following Gaston and Belle’s father, a plot thread that takes considerably longer to reach the same conclusion and ruins one of the best cuts in the animated film. (“We’ll help you out,” might not have been the best pun, but it was a good gag.) The plot point feels consciously convoluted, an attempt to keep characters active in the narrative where the original film focused on Belle and the Beast.
There are some attempts at character development, but they feel largely superficial. There is an entire plot thread dedicated to Le Fou’s strained relationship to Gaston that ends with a line of exposition rather than any action; it adds nothing of material value and feels designed so that it could be cut from the finished film if necessary. Beauty and the Beast also provides its two leads with back stories, answering questions about their parents that nobody ever asked.
Beauty and the Beast tries to simplify its male lead by suggesting his gruffness is largely Freudian in nature. It is a very trite development, one that seeks to soften the character and absolve him from responsibility for his own behaviour. The curse imposed on the Beast and his staff for his failure to welcome a stranger into his home is so ridiculously disproportionate that it needs no excuse. Revealing that the Beast lost his mother at a young age and that his father was an uncaring oaf is a distraction from his own agency
Similarly, just as there is no need to account for the Beast’s family history, nothing Beauty and the Beast requires an explanation for what happened to Belle’s mother. Single parent families exist without need for justification or explanation, and Belle does not seem defined or shaped by the absence of her mother. As a result, a subplot focusing on the mysterious circumstances of her mother’s death feels like a tangent that distracts from the story at hand. Once again, there’s a sense of over-explanation here, particularly tied to rose imagery.
It is not that any of these additions are particularly bad, or that any single tangents slows down the story being told. However, cumulatively, these forty minutes add very little of note to Beauty and the Beast. There is a sense that the live action adaptation is trying to be “bigger” than the original, but without any real thought about what that entails. The source material is woven so tightly into the fabric of the film that none of the additions are allowed to fundamentally change the flow of the story or the arc of the characters.
Rather tellingly, Beauty and the Beast consciously avoids any attempt to deconstruct of subvert its source material. This is not Maleficent or Wicked. There is no real exploration of the gender politics at play, no self-aware acknowledgement of any awkward subtext about the relationship between the two title characters. The most playful the movie gets involves a few throwaway lines. “I’m no princess,” Belle laughs at one point. Later, she remarks of the Beast, “He’s no Prince Charming.”
Early in the film, there is some suggestion of a feminist social conscience. Quite pointedly, Belle is the only woman in her some provincial village who can read; girls are not allowed to go to school and she is bullied for teaching a young girl to read. However, these notions are largely brushed aside once the plot gets going. After all, this is a romance in which the male lead introduces himself by forcing the female lead to surrender to life imprisonment in his gigantic eerie castle. Even if he eventually lets her go, that’s hardly a feminist starting point.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the decision to avoid subverting or deconstructing the source material. The original animated film is a beloved classic, for a reason. The decision to do a straight adaptation of that source material is only logical. However, that commitment also limits the film, and makes it difficult to justify the additions that are necessary to extend the runtime. Nothing added to Beauty and the Beast feels essential, something all the more apparent from the existence of the original film as a blueprint.
Beauty and the Beast is a very impressive production, and loving tribute to some classic source material. However, it struggles to reach beyond that. This would not be a problem, except for the fact that the film feels compelled to over-extend itself. The result is a film that serves as a very stylish technical accomplishment, but which runs the risk of diluting the appeal of its adaptation.