Sometimes art needs to deliberately hit wrong notes

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Beauty and the Beast
Opens March 17, wide

There’s an obvious downside to Disney’s successful strategy of remaking their animated catalogue as live-action films: the motivation (aside from making bales of money) isn’t so much artistic as to prove it can be done.

But after The Jungle Book proved the only challenge left for CGI is creating believable people who don’t look dead inside (see Rogue One), do the stories have anything new to say?

Beauty and the Beast is almost carbon copy of the cartoon. The film follows the original down to the villain’s harebrained schemes to get the girl. Not only does Beauty embrace its musical side, it amps it up to Busby Berkeley levels.

But the message — appearances, bad! Inner beauty, good! Because that’s how real life works! Oh, wait. It doesn’t — feels stale.

While the jury’s still out on Emma Watson’s acting potential (The Colony and Regression are too bad to give her a pass), she’s a perfectly serviceable Belle, the lone intellectual in a town of rubes. The ignorant mob resents Belle, with one exception: hunky Gaston (Luke Evans, Fast & Furious 6), who’s obsessed with the woman he can’t have.

Things take a turn when Maurice (Kevin Kline), Belle’s dad, runs afoul of a prince-turned-beast (Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey) and ends up imprisoned. His loving daughter offers to take his place.

Song, song, song, Belle falls for hirsute captor, angry mob storms castle, kitchen appliances stand their ground, the beast becomes prettier than Belle, another song. The end.

There isn’t a bad note in Beauty and the Beast, likely because it was produced within an inch of its life, but the film’s pursuit of perfection renders it airless. The only noticeable change — a welcome one — is the transformation of Gaston’s sidekick, LeFou (Josh Gad, Frozen) from the town’s fool to closeted gay man who slowly comes into his own. Every other virtue is inherited from the 1991 animated adaptation. The score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman remains unmatched, every tune a classic (the new song by Celine Dion is fine, forgettable). Gaston continues to be one of Disney’s best villains because he doesn’t start as one but glaring flaws like vanity and entitlement curdle into misogyny and violence (his arc is far more interesting than the leads, whose character beats have been used in dozens of princess movies, most recently in Frozen).

In both versions, Beauty and the Beast is critical of willful stupidity. The mob scenes show a populace suspicious of smart women and anyone who looks different. These are the kind of people that would elect a dangerous extremist as their leader because he panders to their narrow viewpoint.

At least Gaston’s hair is real.

Beauty and the Beast will charm new audiences, but there’s something unsavoury about its lack of purpose Beyond raking up cash, which it will do well. ❧