Imagine it’s the late 1980s, and you work as an animator at Walt Disney Studios. You’ve been assigned to Beauty and the Beast, a film populated by talking teapots, candlesticks, and wardrobes that’s being pitched as a Broadway-worthy musical extravaganza. You’ve been assigned to design an uppity clock named Cogsworth, and as you sit down to figure out his myriad facial expressions and physical movements, an unshakable thought runs through your head: This is fine, but I just feel so hamstrung by my medium. This guy’s never going to look like an actual clock with a human face. I’m doomed to fail.
You’d be glad to know, then, that Walt Disney Studios has set out to remedy everything wrong with the original 1991 Beauty and the Beast by producing a “live action” remake of the film. Finally, the unfulfilled promise of the original has come to fruition, by reimagining all its fantastical elements in CGI, and keeping them more faithful to real-world physics, I guess because that seemed like it would be fun.
It’s easy to understand the lure of making the ephemeral tangible; it’s what Disney is banking on for a whole slate of planned live-action treatments of their back catalogue. It’s also the basic premise of Disneyland, and the thing that fuels countless enterprising cosplayers. But in the new Beauty and the Beast the word “tangible” is egregiously stretched. After a couple musical numbers, it occurs to you that the film you’re watching is every bit as animated as the original, but it’s somehow turned out less lifelike, despite its considerable technological advantage.
You likely know the story: A spoiled prince (Dan Stevens) is turned into a beast, and all his servants into objects, in a curse that will be lifted if he ever learns to love and be loved in return. A rebellious bookworm named Belle (Emma Watson) volunteers herself as his prisoner in place of her eccentric father (Kevin Kline) who has accidentally wandered onto beastly property. Over time, they grow fond of each other, despite or because of the lopsided power dynamic in their relationship, but they must overcome the most eligible bachelor Gaston (Luke Evans, the only person having any fun here) and a town full of fearful villagers who would rather see the beast’s head on the wall at the local tavern.
Aside from its production techniques, the film has also sought to update its story for today’s social mores. The poor, provincial town that Belle lives in is more diverse and explicitly anti–female literacy (Belle gets her books from a chapel, not a bookstore), effectively turning her defining hobby into a form of high-stakes resistance. Maurice, her father, is an artist instead of an inventor; it’s Belle who’s out there trying to engineer the world’s first washing machine with a horse and a rolling bucket. And the Beast is revealed to be a bit of a bookworm as well. The titular pair bond over Shakespeare, which softens a romance that’s always been a little hard to swallow.
But it doesn’t make up for his face: an eerie, uncanny valley blend of lifelike CGI fur and Stevens’s human eyes, which never seem to really connect with whatever’s in front of them. We see Stevens briefly as a human in an opening ball scene (which, with its powdered wigs and face paint, unquestionably situates the story in the 18th-century twilight of the French aristocracy — more of that would have been fun), but we’re hardly able to get a handle on him before he disappears into the fur. The same goes for his servants, whose features have been minimized supposedly in the name of realism, but in a way that they all end up resembling the plastered visages in Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon.
Emma Watson is the real headliner here, and physically couldn’t have been more perfectly cast. But someone really should have screen-tested her before she signed on — with an actual green screen. There are actors who can conjure up a world around them on a blank soundstage and make us believe in it just with their eyes; Watson is not one of those actors. Watching her sing to the hills during the re-creation of the iconic “Belle (Reprise)” or wander through the ominous ruins of the castle’s west wing (not that one) I found myself distracted, wondering where she thought she was walking when she filmed it, what she thought she was looking at. Her singing voice could stand to add a little oomph, but it’s the least of the problems in a performance that mostly adds up as a collection of charming poses and furrowed eyebrows. But boy, does she look the part.
If only Beauty and the Beast were just a collection of stills, like a fancy Annie Leibowitz spread for some glossy quarterly edition of Disney Adventures. Unfortunately, it’s over two hours long, and is padded out by a hugely unnecessary number of non–Ashman-Menken musical numbers and a pointless detour where Belle finds out what happened to her missing mother. At every turn, the film seems to ask itself if what the original film did was enough, and answers with a definitive “no.” But hey, at least that clock looked real.