The whole concept of the Disney princess can be a tough one to make peace with 80 years after Snow White first cleaned up after a houseful of dwarves and was saved by the kiss of a prince. Those early animated films (from Cinderella to Sleeping Beauty) were undeniably enchanting and easy on the eyes, but they also now carry a stale whiff of female powerlessness and subservience. The message too often was that a young woman could live happily ever after only after landing her prince charming. But then, with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, the Mouse House’s princesses entered their second wave. Ariel and Belle weren’t exactly Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer, and these weren’t what anyone would call feminist message movies, but Uncle Walt’s heroines were finally more independent. They were no longer cartoon damsels in distress. Belle even read books! It’s all about baby steps in the Magic Kingdom.
Over the past few years, the studio has smartly raided its vault of animated classics and, one by one, has been giving them live-action makeovers. I say “smartly” because, for the most part, these haven’t been the crass, cynical productions you might expect. The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, and Cinderella all scored delightful movie updates that managed to offer audiences something old and something new. The new films were faithful to the predecessors, but not slavish. To stick with the princess theme for a second, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella utilized a wicked Cate Blanchett, the pixie-dust costumes of Sandy Powell, and real razzle-dazzle filmmaking flair to make the wheezy tale smell fresh, not of mothballs. It’s the kind of transporting magic that Disney’s new, live-action Beauty and the Beast could have used a little more of.
Directed by movie-musical veteran Bill Condon (Dreamgirls and the script for Chicago), Beauty and the Beast is a movie that can’t quite figure out what it wants to say that it didn’t already say back in 1991 — when it was the first full-length animated film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar (and this was when there were only five nominees in the category, too!). It’s fine and funny and sweet and lush and some of the songs are infectious, but I still don’t completely understand why it exists — and why they couldn’t do more with it. Emma Watson is certainly one of the film’s stronger elements as Belle, the bookish and beautiful free spirit whose imagination and ambitions are too big for her small, provincial French village. With her doe eyes, sunny smile, and the smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose, Watson is a made-to-order Disney heroine. There is an innocence and intelligence to her that fits the character perfectly. She also, it turns out, can sing. She’s not a belter, thank god, but she sells songs like the film’s great, table-setting opening number “Belle.”
Maybe it’s because La La Land is still so fresh in all of our minds, but there’s something a bit square about the musical numbers in the film, like “Be Our Guest.” They feel like they could have been conceived and performed 50 years ago. I wish Condon had taken more license and given them more life. The story is as you remember it, too: a handsome, shallow prince turns away an old hag and is cursed for judging people by their appearance and turned into a hideous beast. He has to earn someone’s love in order to be transformed back into Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey. Meanwhile, Belle, the daughter of a widowed tinkerer (a lively Kevin Kline), pines for life beyond her village while turning down the advances of Luke Evans’ handsome, square-jawed, and dim Gaston. Josh Gad minces and mugs as his Smithers-like gay sidekick. (What would Walt say?) I wish that detail was as edgy and funny as the film thinks it is.
Belle eventually becomes the prisoner of the Beast in his haunted castle, which is inhabited by fun CGI housewares, like the bickering clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) and his Pepe Le Pew-like candelabra pal, Lumiere (Ewan McGregor). These classic Disney wiseacre bit players move a lot more fluidly and convincingly than the horned, leonine Beast, who looks distractingly phony when he walks and dances.
Once in the castle, Belle and Beast both quickly (too quickly) change: He goes from cruel captor to fellow booklover; she goes from fiery inmate to besotted Stockholm Syndrome victim in time for their love to save the day. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s musical numbers are peppered throughout along with some new ones by Menken and Tim Rice. Like so much about Condon’s film, the new songs are perfectly fine, but they’re just not transporting. More than movies or theme parks, Disney has always been in the business of selling magic. I wish there was just a little bit more of it in this Beauty and the Beast. B–