Belle Reloaded

Beauty and the Beast2
Photo credit: see below.

As Disney releases the live-action version of its beloved animation classic, Beauty and the Beast (1991), the question is whether the remake has anything to add to the “tale as old as time”.

One thing about Beauty and the Beast (2017) should be said clearly from the start: This, for once, is a remake that is true to the plot and spirit of the work it is based on. So, let’s not waste any words on the story here, because really, apart from some minor changes, it’s precisely what you know and expected if you’re vaguely familiar with Disney’s family classic of the same name.

A particular strength of the live-action version over its older brother, however, lies in its visuals: With its beautiful costumes and richly adorned, baroque set pieces, Bill Condon’s reimagined fairy tale, unwittingly, turns out a lavishly designed period-piece—albeit a period-piece on steroids. But the film’s visual power doesn’t stop here: Beauty and the Beast is also one of the more impressive examples to-date of carefully planned and expertly executed use of CGI. Computer-rendered images and live-action shots fuse and blend into one another so seamlessly that I literally can’t wait to see an extended making-of video to unveil all the technical trickery.

Apart from its visual qualities, one of the film’s most commendable aspects is the portrayal of its lead female character, Belle. Don’t get fooled by her name: Played – and significantly shaped – by Emma Watson, Belle anno 2017 is even more self-confident, upright and courageous than she was in 1991. Be it her resourcefulness (Did you know that she actually invented the washing machine in order to have more time to read?), her passion for learning and teaching, or her daring when confronting the Beast about her father—Belle is a refreshingly strong female lead. And while the internet is busy debating whether or not Emma Watson and her on-screen character are feminist heroines, I like to think of Beauty and the Beast as the latest instalment in a recent wave of Disney films with a more modern view on gender roles—preceded by films such as Brave (2012), Frozen (2013) and Rogue One (2016). Interestingly, at the same time, it is also proof that a classic, girl-meets-prince fairy tale and modern characters aren’t mutually exclusive. Inventive, bibliophile Belle can still be a princess—if she chooses to.

All of this being said, the remake is certainly not without its shortcomings. Clocking in at over two hours, the live-action film runs 45 minutes longer than the animated feature, and still over half an hour longer than Jean Cocteau’s classic live-action adaptation (La Belle et la Bête, 1946). And, as sad it is, it shows. Condon’s film drags along quite a bit in the middle, especially if you’re familiar with the plot, making Beauty and the Beast (2017) an illustration of why a simple story, such as a fairy tale, shouldn’t be blown up beyond proportions. Granted, we do learn a bit more about the protagonists’ biographical background here than in the 1991 version, but these scraps of interpolated extra info hardly warrant increasing the runtime by a third. Nor do the new songs, composed by Alan Menken, add anything but length to the experience: To be honest, they were mostly forgotten by the time I had left the theater. Plus, the partly very silly humor of the thing didn’t help much either, really.

Paradoxically, it is one of the film’s biggest strengths, however, that turned out to be, at the same time, its biggest weakness: For a fairy tale, for me, works best if there’s a certain amount of room for imagination. CGI-powered hyperreality, however, destroys the audience’s creative involvement with the source material, leaving no space, indeed no need, for your own mind to kick into action and fill in the blanks. Where fairy tales – understood as a literary genre –, animated films, and even old-timey live-action movies not only allow, but call for your active participation in the process of world-building, films like Beauty and the Beast (2017) seek to spell out every detail of scenery and setting in flawless, stupefyingly realistic, high-definition images. 3D included for near-perfect immersion, if you wish (and are willing to pay the extra fee). Only, instead of being sucked into the world of the story, I found myself mysteriously excluded by it—like I have by other recent Disney films such as Alice in Wonderland (2010) and, though to a lesser extent, Maleficent (2014). This feeling of exclusion by snatching away all possibility for creative interaction made Beauty and the Beast a rather dull watch for me in the end.

Some other, minor points of criticism are hardly worth mentioning as they may be explained by the film’s largely young target audience. But, altogether, it doesn’t seem bold to say that I’m far more likely to return to the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast: Even though the remake isn’t a complete disaster, and even though it takes up and emphasizes nicely the strong female character that has always been an essential part of its story, its length, its overly perfect, glossy surface, and its abundance of embarrassing jokes and forgetful songs make it an unlikely favorite for movie nights. If there is one thing, however, that I would return to the film for, it is that fantastic library. Seriously though.

Beauty and the Beast
(US 2017). Directed by Bill Condon. Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. Cinematography: Tobias Schliessler. Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans and Kevin Kline. 129 min.

Photo by Eva Rinaldi, licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0.

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