From their first moments, all movies start establishing a contract with their audience to set the framework of guidelines and conventions through which to view the work. This might sound like advanced film theory – it’s not. And for all those who just want to know if Disney’s live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” is worth seeing, this is relevant. These implicit contracts are some of the first things you factor into your decisions about a movie’s quality because they relate to whether or not you believe their created worlds.
Fictional films present distortions of observable reality that ask for various suspensions of normal existence. Conveniently, one of the easiest illustrations of this principle resides in the musical genre. We generally accept that people do not burst out into song as a mode of expression. If they do in a film, though, why? Is it a sung-through musical like “Les Misérables,” where music is the only mode of communication? Is it like “La La Land,” where song and dance numbers provide an expressionistic commentary? Is it more akin to “Into the Woods,” where moments of heightened emotion cause the characters to break out in a catchy melody?
The animated musicals of the so-called “Disney Renaissance” from 1989 to 1999 hinged on a fairly interesting set of conventions. The films borrowed heavily from the Broadway musical format but also took wild flights of animated fancy. Their limitation was not the confines of a stage but the edges of imagination. It’s no wonder these films carved out such a special place in the millennial consciousness.
But when it comes to adapting “Beauty and the Beast” into a live-action feature, musical numbers and all, director Bill Condon had a special challenge that Kenneth Branagh did not face in his 2015 version of “Cinderella.” Fans of the 1991 animated classic expect a certain fidelity to the original film. But so much of what made that film so effervescently delightful simply does not translate easily to a world that more closely resembles our own.
How does Condon resolve this? Primarily, he doesn’t. His “Beauty and the Beast” rests uneasily somewhere between the Broadway musical and the Disney animated musical traditions, careening back and forth between them to disorienting effect. It doesn’t help that his cast, least not Emma Watson as the eponymous beaut, do not boast the pipes to make us forget these foundational building blocks are shaky.
The famed opening number, “Belle,” plays out like an non-ironic number ripped straight from the Great White Way. Our plucky heroine sings out – with copious assistance from some AutoTune – her heart’s deepest desires to the back of the house, while various residents chime in with their own commentary. Perhaps a starry-eyed, head-first plunge into nostalgia makes the sequence work. But any closer examination reveals some of the film’s oddities: backlot-looking sets that hold up an odd distortion of reality, awkward ensemble buy-in, cosmetic progressive ideals. (At least the revisionism of “Maleficent” boasted the tiniest bit of intellectual rigor.)
Only once does Condon’s “Beauty and the Beast” reach anything close to the transcendence of its predecessor: the show-stopping “Be Our Guest,” which uses CGI and a healthy helping of creativity to push the song in exciting new directions. Fittingly, he cuts to black on the final note as if to signal – no, urge – the applause that might greet the number on Broadway. The moment might deserve a smattering of claps, but little else does. The film runs 45 minutes longer than the animated film and yet manages to add precious little to the story’s legacy (especially not in the overwrought new songs). It’s newer, bigger … but definitely not better. C+ /