There was a time when Disney would simply release their films from the vault, either on the big screen or on the home video market, then throw them back after a predetermined period of time. It was a simpler time. Then in 2010 Tim Burton was hired to do a live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland, it made a billion at the box office, and the next thing you know there’s a cavalcade of live-action retreads of their beloved classics.
Here we are seven years later, and Disney’s self-cannibalization has transitioned away from the oldies like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella and towards films that are barely old enough to drink legally. Beauty and the Beast is an opulent musical, because Disney spares no expense, and curiously inert in many ways. For all of the razzle dazzle, there’s something strangely hollow at the core of this Beauty and the Beast. It strikes all of the poses, but I’m not sure if it possess the wounded soul of the 1991 animated film.
Of course, these live-action retreads are merely the latest in a long line of diminishing the brand. The 1990s Renaissance, one of the most beloved and creatively fertile periods in the company’s history, saw the emergence of never-ending inferior sequels, spinoff TV shows, and the occasional Broadway adaptation. The sheer volume of materials and product released meant that some of it had some value, last year’s The Jungle Book was a solid charmer with incredible special-effects work.
This version of Beauty and the Beast is a delight in many ways, most of them for the old fashioned simplicity and outlandishness of its musical numbers. There’s no post-modern winking to the camera, but there are several moments where everyone involved is clearly trying to smooth over some of the more questionable aspects of the material. Or perhaps they’re trying to add in some sense of modernity, but they’re clunky more often than not. For every moment like Mrs. Potts admitting the culpability of the service staff in their master’s cruelty, there’s the entirety of Josh Gad’s LeFou as mincing coded gay sidekick.
Beyond this, there’s a general sense of more-is-more bloat that overpowers the material. “Be Our Guest” features visual references to Singin’ in the Rain and Esther Williams’ aquatic musicals, and the number begins to succumb to its own precociousness and weight. “Be Our Guest” was already a dazzling showstopper in its animated incarnation, and I’m not sure it needed more bells and whistles involved. Then there’s the subplots which occasionally turn the narrative into a slog, not only LeFou as emotionally conflicted gay tagalong, but dead mothers as bonding experience or Belle inventing a prototype washing machine.
Then there’s everything else going on in Beauty and the Beast, and it’s simply wonderful. The entire cast is game for everything thrown at them, with Luke Evans’ Gaston threatening to steal the entire show. Granted, the likes of Kevin Kline, Audra MacDonald, and Stanley Tucci are underused. Kline is a musical-comedy veteran (he won a Tony for Pirates of Penzance), and he never gets a moment to really strut his talents while MacDonald isn’t given enough to sing and Tucci is simply reigned in too much for my liking.
Opulence, inclusivity, and a general sense of warmth and hope pervades throughout, and it feels like a balm for the current times. It may not aim for the artistic heights of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, or even for the emotional depth of Disney’s 1991 film, but it’s a solid entry in the company’s current live-action crop of retreads. It’s pleasingly made if somehow more reliant upon aesthetics than emotional connection, but sometimes that’s all you’re in the mood for.