You know what idea was ahead of its time? Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. Sure, that film—in which Vince Vaughn, of all people, was tasked with recreating one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history—was a notorious flop, a disaster so moored to its source material that it actually put masturbation noises on the soundtrack when Norman Bates is spying on Marion Crane. But what Van Sant saw as a low-budget cineaste experiment in 1998 sure does look a lot like corporate strategy today. It’s Alfred Hitchcock’s classic…exactly like you’ve seen before. As a bonus, there’s build-in brand awareness!
I thought a lot about Van Sant’s Psycho while watching the new remake/reboot/whatever of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which feels like it should be some sort of shot-by-shot experimental film but is actually a massive, expensive production that is expected to pull in a billion dollars worldwide. The film is, of course, based on the Best Picture–nominated and absolutely wonderful 1991 animated film of the same name, with the same characters and the same songs and the same everything, only this time it is cast with actors rather than animated characters.
There are a few add-ons—a couple of dull songs that weren’t in the first version, slight tweaks for 2017 sensibilities—but this is essentially the same movie. As Buzzfeed has pointed out, the remake at times even reaches the shot-by-shot fidelity of Van Sant’s film, to the point that you wonder if the filmmakers were watching the old film on set and trying to match the shots up perfectly.
Thus, what was considered insane and absurd in 1998 is now accepted Disney policy. You have well-known actors in the main roles: Emma Watson (who is just fine but probably too smart for this sort of role, even with a “reimagined” Belle) in the lead, Dan Stevens as the Beast, Kevin Kline as the dad, Luke Evans as a duller Gaston, and a host of twinkly-toned stars as all the teapots and brooms and cupboards in the castle, including Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, and Ian McKellan, none of whom, alas, can measure up to Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury.
By hewing so closely to the original, the film does itself no favors. There are some pleasant moments—“Be Our Guest” is the showstopper in the animated film and it kills again here— but you can’t help but wonder what, exactly, is the point of all this. Disney has taken classic scenes from a classic movie and made them, well, just a little bit worse, consistently, from scene to scene. A good example of this is Gaston. Evans does his best, but the whole joke of Gaston is that he is so cartoonishly over-muscled and over-chiseled that he can’t see his own villainy. Evans sees his this villainy from the get-go—he’s Gaston!—which means he’s a more predicatable, more obvious version of the character, only he’s made of flesh and blood and thus chained to the sad principles of reality. Real life, unfortunately, just won’t let you do as much as animation does.
The movie’s heart is in the right place, and it is eager to show that it can update the original when needed—sometimes a little too eager. The first one was hardly retrograde—Belle is far more assertive than decades of Disney heroines before her—but the filmmakers still make sure that Watson is the driver of all the action, rather than a mere responder. As a result, Watson’s performance is sometimes a little too I’m-Being-A-Positive-Role-Model!
Worse, the romance with the Beast doesn’t really pop. The CGI-aided makeup on Dan Stevens has buried him and left the Beast mostly unknowable; there are times he veers into Furry Cosplay. When we finally see the real Stevens, he can’t help but be a disappointment: The character is more a construct than a real person.
The movie has received plaudits (and, unfortunately, protests) for its portrayal of an “exclusively gay” relationship, but even that feels as if the film is congratulating itself for its wokeness, rather than building that relationship organically from the action. Though it’s worth noting that Josh Gad’s Le Fou is a highlight of the film: He has legit Broadway props that the movie, frankly, could use a little more of.
On the whole, though, this is corporate strategy in place of a movie. The original is so charming that you’ll still smile from time to time, the way you might smile when you watch little kids re-enact one of your favorite scenes from a beloved classic. Actually, wasn’t there already a movie about this?
That is the primary sensation of watching Beauty and the Beast. A bunch of people re-enacting a classic—not remaking, not rebooting, but just re-enacting it, like it’s a Civil War battlefield. There isn’t a single thing here that’s better than it was in the original animated film, and the original is very available. You can watch it on Amazon or iTunes for less than what it would cost you to watch actors do a lesser, more earthbound version of it. You can watch it right now. You should just go do that.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site