Poet Paul Éluard said that to understand Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of “La Belle et la Bête”—“Beauty and the Beast”—you must love your dog more than your car. It’s a good line that suggests Cocteau’s adaptation values the organic elements of the film — even the special effects are handmade—while refusing to allow the technical aspects of the film to interfere with the humanity of the story.
The same can’t be said of the new, big budget live action Disney version of the story. Inspired by their classic 1991 animated story of belle and beast, the remake relies too heavily on computer generated splendour and too little on the innate charms of the story.
Emma Watson plays the bright and beautiful Belle, the independent-minded daughter of eccentric inventor Maurice (Kevin Kline). She is, as the townsfolk warble, “strange but special, A most peculiar mad’moiselle!” She has caught the eye of dimwitted war hero Gaston (Luke Evans) who unsuccessfully tries to win her hand.
Taking one of his new gizmos to market Maurice picks a rose as a present for Belle but runs afoul of the Beast (Dan Stevens). Once a self-centered prince, he was changed into a part-man, part-wolf, part Chewbacca creature by a witch as punishment for his hedonistic life. The only way to beak the spell, she cackles, is to find someone to love him before the last petal falls off an enchanted rose. “Who could love a beast?” he asks.
On the hunt for her father, she makes her way to the Beast’s remote castle only to find Maurice locked up for rose theft. She pleads with her hairy host for a moment with her father, and while giving him a hug pushes him out of the cell, slamming the door behind her. Trading her freedom for his, she is now the Beast’s prisoner. The staff—once human, now transformed into the enchanted candlestick Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), a teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and wardrobe (Audra McDonald) although it feels like a missed opportunity to not have Daniel Craig play a eavesdropping microwave—see Belle as just the person to look past his ghastly appearance and see the true princely beauty within and lift his curse and theirs.
Director Bill Condon has made a classic big screen musical with state of the art special effects. Up front is a perfectly cast Emma Watson, who brings more tenacity to the character than we’ve seen in past versions as well as a considerable amount of charm. She is the movie’s beating heart, the human presence in the midst of a considerable amount of pomp and circumstance.
Condon decorates the screen, over-dressing almost every scene with layers of pageantry and CGI. It entertains the eye, particularly in the Busby Berkeley style “Be Our Guest” sequence but overwhelms the film’s humanity. This is a movie that loves its car more than its dog.
“Beauty and the Beast” is a handsome, straightforward movie that adds little to the animated classic. Some of the details have changed. Belle and Beast mourn their deceased mothers and Gaston’s minion Le Fou (Josh Gad) is now gay but the dreamlike of the 1991 version is lacking. The story just seems less magical when built from a collection of pixels.