Beauty and the Beast is one of the great cartoons – nay, films – of the 90s. Why would you remake it? There can be only one reason: so that Belle gets to eat. How hungry must that poor girl be? She hunts down her father to an ominous gothic castle in the middle of a terrifying forest, then surrenders her freedom and finds herself locked away for the rest of her life by a monster who’s also an asshole. Finally she’s invited down for dinner, but after Lumiere’s massively ostentatious song-and-dance about Belle being a guest, she doesn’t actually have time to eat any of the food paraded in front of her. (Okay, she briefly tries the grey stuff – it’s delicious! – but that’s it.)
The song ends, the show-off candlestick takes his bow, and then there’s no food on the table and she just has to wander off. My childhood self remains bewildered at Belle’s laissez-faire attitude to not actually getting dinner. So if you’re going to remake the film, remake that. Bill Condon, this is your chance to right a 25-year-old wrong. Everything else is perfect, leave it alone. Just let the poor girl eat. No? No. Ewan McGregor sings his French-accented heart out, the crockery and cutlery do their best impression of Moulin Rouge, but when all is said and done, still no-one remembers to feed Belle. Shame.
That said, mostly the film suffers when it changes or removes parts of the original animation. It often lacks the courage to do anything properly new, instead aiming for a slightly unsettling emulation of what has come before. Rather than feeling fresh, some scenes are pure deja vu, a cosplay gone very slightly wrong. The cartoon is so iconic and this new version forges such familiar ground that you wait for the beats of the original, then grimace when they’re slightly out of time.
Surprisingly the film fares much better when it comes to its additions. Hollywood’s obsessions with prequel backstories is legendary, but here it actually works. Fleshing out Belle’s father provides a new layer of motivation and insight, while focussing more time on the Beast’s sentient furniture unearths a captivating vein of emotion and humour. Even the Beast’s new song is pretty great – although I’m not sure it’s more effective than the pure despair he displays in the original.
Dan Stevens is excellent at exposing the Beast’s childlike vulnerabilities, Luke Evans has such a convincing slimy charm that at one point I found myself rooting for Gaston, and Josh Gad ensures that Le Fou is a much more interesting character this time around. The furniture is sadly less expressive in CGI than in hand-drawn animation, and Emma Watson on the other hand far too expressive. She simply isn’t a natural actor and her performance is at times bizarrely mannered, all awkward tics and out-of-place faces. It might have been useful if they’d brought in a piece of furniture to play her as well. She is at least utterly beautiful, which you might say provides mitigation.
Ultimately there’s not much to recommend this film over the original, but nor does it sully its older namesake. The script is such a perfect marriage of songs and story already that you’d have to really go out of your way to screw it up. Disney know a good thing when they’ve got one and they’re masters of playing it safe. Bill Condon’s orders were probably simple: don’t break it. He didn’t.