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19 March 2017

'Beauty' and the bean counters

Belle (Emma Watson) and the Beast (Dan Stevens) trip the candlelight fantastic. (Courtesy: www.digitalspy.com)

We probably shouldn't scold the Disney Studio or its bean counters too severely for rolling out a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, the Mouse House's animated golden oldie that swept up a boffo $425 million worldwide in 1991.

Disney has been raiding its own vault of animated treasures for years; Alice in Wonderland (2010), Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016) with Dumbo and Mulan on the way next year.  That, folks, is why they call it show business with the emphasis clearly on the second word.


Truth be known, the Disney bean counters knew what I learned at a sold-out public screening of the new Beauty and the Beast over the weekend.  Wait a full generation to rob Walt's Vault, and a new flood of fresh-faced would-be Belles of the ball will fill seats and anxiously wait to be Prince Charmed.

As a film critic who ventures into the theater dark primarily for enjoyment, I prefer to focus on the show.  And the Beauty and the Beast show began in the theater parking lot.  One, no two, oops one more, that makes three young girls from toddlers to 7 or 8-year-olds stepped lively toward Auditorium 2 of the neighborhood multiplex with Mommy in one hand and a "magic wand" in the other.

What the little darlings discovered, along with equally anxious mommies clearly hoping to relive their own magic of about a quarter century ago, hovering grandmas, a few grandpas looking generally bored and one film critic trying to disappear into his recliner seat to avoid razor-dart stares of "What's that guy doing here?  He's not with a child.  You don't suppose he's a ... Someone should contact management!"

About that time the lights finally went down and Alan Menken's familiar score, an Academy Award-winner the first time around the Beast's castle, swept through auditorium speakers.  Off we go to fairy-tale 18th century France:  to singing villagers, a beast that's really a prince with flowing golden hair like we see on romance novel covers, to a lovable teapot and her precocious little cup of a transformed boy, to a clock, candle-holder, an operatic wardrobe and this time a harpsichord.

Oh, and to Belle, the strong-willed inventor's daughter who will ultimately discover the beast in the village blowhard Gaston (Luke Evans of The Girl on the Train) and the humanity in The Beast (Dan Stevens, known for Downton Abbey).

Those concerned that Emma Watson, perhaps forever linked to her role in the Harry Potter franchise as Harry's friend and maybe, sorta girlfriend Hermione Granger, needn't worry.  Watson, a skilled actress, blends difficult nuance into a character that while strong and deliberate, is also kind and quite willing to fall for a kindly brute with a loud roar and even work the princess thing quite well.  According to reports, Watson also does her own singing as Belle and sells her title tune, Belle, There's Something There and others.

That's about where the happy surprises and enjoyment ended for me, though.  The live-action re-boot hits all the familiar Beauty and the Beast moments, but often without the simple set-ups that made segments of the original so special; like pedals falling from the magical flower, for instance, and even the magic mirror.

Gifted actors are all over the place here.  Josh Gad does all he can with LeFou, Gaston's yes-man sidekick.  Kevin Kline is fine as Maurice, Belle's father.  And when it comes to the furniture, still animated, of course, as is the Beast (although mostly motion-capture), Ewan McGregor as Lumière (candle), Ian McKellen's Cogsworth (clock) and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts (teapot) all have something to show off to the grand kids.

Someone, however, wasn't content just to remake Beauty and the Beast, which many call the finest animated film of all time.  Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman:  Winter's War), for some reason I can't comprehend, have expanded the yarn with backstory for Belle and the Beast, more songs and other elements. 

Director Bill Condon, who proved he could put on a musical show with Dreamgirls in 2006, has a thankless task here:  Put new revisionist sparkle on a true gem.

In this case, more is not more.  The new Beauty and the Beast is an overblown flourish of less that appears strained and mechanical too much of the time.

Sadly, this rehashed tale as old as time arrives as a faded rose.

MPAA rating: PG (Action violence)

129 minutes

Jalapeño rating: 2½ (out of 4)




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