Beauty and the Beast ★★★

2017 Ranked
Seen in Theaters

Having never seen the original animated film, or at least not remembering having seen it, my expectations were not too high for Beauty and the Beast. Do not get me wrong, I never thought it would be bad. But, I was never comparing it to some childhood classic that filled me with nostalgia every time I thought of watching the film. Instead, I saw this film in a vacuum. Unfortunately, it is still a mixed bag. At times, you can feel that fairy tale magic that is promised. Other moments provide sensory overload or are complete filler and wholly unnecessary. The end result is a potion that both enchants and befuddles in near equal measure.

From its very first frame, Beauty and the Beast shows its precarious footing between grating and magical. Its opening sequence of the Beast/Prince Charming (Dan Stevens) getting cursed by an enchantress has both incredible special effects and preposterous make-up. It is well applied, but it seems too exuberant and practically flamboyant with how much make-up the Prince is wearing to his party. That said, the scene still imbues the sense of mystery and magic necessary for the film and its immediate follow-up, the performance of the song "Belle", really hits the mark. Emma Watson's singing is lovely as Belle as she goes through her small French village and the various villagers express their reservations about Belle and her quirky bookworm behavior. It is a real charmer and is a song that gets the proceedings off to a terrific musical beginning, quickly displaying why this film's music is beloved by so many.

Unfortunately, the film then takes some poor turns. In its performance of "Gaston", a loud and incredibly well-choreographed musical number mostly performed by LeFou (Josh Gad), Gaston's (Luke Evans) closest companion, the film hits a real sour note. The song is simply too much. Compared to the more restrained staging of "Belle", "Gaston" is over-the-top and further maligned by an awful joke about the spelling of his name and LeFou's illiteracy. At this point, I was wondering if it was a mistake and the film would not be nearly as good as hoped. These fears were realized when we reach the Prince's castle. While the banter between Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) was immediately appealing, the arrival at the castle is marked by a few bad moments. One, when Belle is shown her room and the camera does a whip pan. Early in the film, during the performance of "Belle", I noticed some quick camera movements that immediately bothered my eyes. However, I had ignored them because I figured that I was simply a bit tired. Sadly, this eye shattering whip only served to make my strained eyes scream out in anguish. My eyes were not treated kindly in the follow-up to this either with the performance of "Be Our Guest". While the song is fine, the glowing sensory overload that ensues on the dinner table is just far too much. It had bright lights and excitement to try and attract kids to the joy on screen, but it felt far too hollow and bombastic to actually work in any effective way.

Fortunately, the film picks up considerably at this point as it begins to focus on the romance between the Beast and Belle. This is a romance that would charm warmth in the coldest and blackest of hearts. Via songs such as "Something There", "Beauty and the Beast", and "Evermore", the film strikes a heart warmingly romantic tone that rewards viewers with the magic of a fairy tale, terrific songs, and an awe-inducing romance. Together, Watson and Stevens have terrific chemistry in these forms and work incredibly well with one another. Small moments of them simply walking into a library or over a bridge are moving, poetic, and achingly romantic. The film has so much heart, it nearly swells and boils over. Now, these sequences do have their flaws. Though the visual effects of the film are impeccable, especially with Belle's dress - a real highlight of these live-action remakes have been the dresses, as the realization of Cinderella's ball gown with the accompanying visual effects is still stunning to me - and the beast is also incredibly well-realized. That said, there are still issues with the effects. On the bridge, while romantic, it is clear it is occurring in front of a green screen. There are other moments scattered throughout that are unfortunately stricken by shaky visual effects. Fortunately, the whole romance of them falling in love is so well-written and realized, it is hard to deny the film's magic. Accented by charming turns by Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson as some of the Beast's cursed helpers, the film strikes a good balance between the more romantic elements and the comedic elements.

Of course, the film reaches a fever pitch with the waltz between Belle and the Beast. The most famous moment, the film's dancing is terrifically put together and choreographed. Highlighted by great lighting and terrific visual effects, the film's magic and realization of the princess fairy tale storyline in this moment is both gorgeous and powerful. It is a point reached once more when the curse is lifted as the Beast lays wounded on the ground and Belle express her love for him. While the last petal of the rose falling at the same time is quite predictable, this predictability is hardly an issue. Instead, it makes it all the more tense and powerful, with the ultimate lifting of the curse bringing joy and happiness to the world. On a side note, did Dan Stevens wear contacts? Nobody's eyes are that blue.

While the romance taking off really helps the film do the same, the climax of the film is quite awful. Gaston is a largely useless character and feels more aligned with manufactured tension than anything else. I know he is in the original, but he feels so excessive. This is a film with natural tension - the curse - and yet it feels the need to add an angry mob with a comically over-the-top battle sequence between the various household items and the people from the small village. It is borderline comical that this in the film and one can only hope it was an addition to this film and not found in the original. It is loud, odd, and trying far too hard to be both funny and tense. The addition of Gaston is quickly made even more obsolete when the tension of him wanting to kill the Beast is rapidly solved and his actions pointless with the Beast being brought back to life as the curse is broken. Thus, his presence is not just artificial tension, but it proves how pointless it all was and how unnecessary an antagonist was in this film. There is enough going on between Belle and the Prince without Gaston and his love of Belle and it is a shame to see him stick around in this iteration of the film.

One of the more controversial elements of this film was having LeFou be a gay man. There are hints throughout at his sexuality as he tries to steer Gaston away from loving Belle as he tries to convince him to just give up loving women and try men on for a size. While nothing is overt on this front, the film's about as subtle as the bathtub scene in Spartacus with this clear obsession. By the end, when LeFou is shown dancing with a man by accident (he was dancing with a woman, but a poor switch in partners left him with a man), it is clear that the controversy is pretty silly. That said, Beauty and the Beast is hardly progressive. LeFou's love for Gaston is turned into comedic fodder with his flamboyant homosexuality being turned into punchlines and hardly moving the needle on the issue. A brief joke about a hyper-masculine musketeer character being into cross dressing further proves that Disney is not nearly as progressive as it may claim. Finding humor in homosexuality, men being in women's clothing and not liking it, or men being in women's clothing and feeling more in touch with their identity, the film's marketing may claim that the film is progressive and a Disney first, but if anything, it underscores how much more progress is required. These are not even baby steps as cross dressing and gay men have been used as comedy even before the Hays code was in place in Hollywood. In 2017, the situation is no different as audiences are given the opportunity to laugh at those in the LGBT community without hesitation or rebuking.

Often magical, enchanting, and incredibly romantic, director Bill Condon's take on Beauty and the Beast hits far more high notes than sour notes, even if they are mostly contained in the romance between Belle and the Prince. The opening is spotty, the beginning of the second act is too much, and the third act is comically too much. That said, the sweet spot in the latter half of the second act is so good, it largely wipes out many of the negatives the film has to offer. Though I am unfamiliar with the source material, it is clear that this new version of the story will hardly have as lasting of an impact on popular culture. However, it is a serviceable remake with a lively performance from Emma Watson and terrific supporting turns from Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, and Kevin Kline, all of whom breathe life into this film in quiet moments. An above average film, Beauty and the Beast is a largely magical experience, even if the gears, nuts, and bolts of the operation are often quite noticeable.

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