The pre-publicity for Disney’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast might have revolved around any number of subjects: Why make a live-action redo of a classic animated film? How would Emma Watson fare outside her Harry Potter world? Had Disney spent too much money (a rumored $300 million, including marketing costs)? As it happens, the actual conversation has mostly been about director Bill Condon’s recent comment that a character in the movie might perhaps be seen as gay. This idea, that something about an American musical had gay coloring, apparently came as a great shock to—whom, exactly? After a minute of fuss about whether or not Russian film censors would allow the movie to be shown in their country (they will, but only to people over 16), the issue seems to have died down.
Curiously, Condon said that the character in question, LeFou, had been accorded an “exclusively gay” moment. If “exclusively” means “through the entirety of his performance,” I guess this could apply to Josh Gad’s campy turn as LeFou, the lovestruck companion and much-abused sidekick of the show’s comic villain, Gaston (Luke Evans). Gad, who did glorious vocal work as the snowman in Frozen, is one of the liveliest elements of the new Beauty and the Beast. The film sticks closely to the outline of the 1991 animated smash and the expanded 1994 Broadway adaptation.
Belle (Watson) is a village lass renowned for her looks, even if the townspeople think “Behind that fair façade/I’m afraid she’s rather odd.” After Belle’s eccentric father (Kevin Kline, who knows how to play this kind of thing) is captured by a notorious recluse in a nearby castle, Belle makes the acquaintance of Dad’s captor. This is, of course, the Beast, a landowner made hideous and giant-horned by a curse. Downton Abbey veteran Dan Stevens plays the Beast, or rather provides the motion-capture body language and the voice for this computer-generated character. Beyond that, there’s the adorable cast of singing and dancing household items, played by an all-star crew that includes Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, and Ewan McGregor.
In the early reels, Condon (whose perpetually puzzling filmography includes two Twilight pictures and Dreamgirls) displays a real grasp of how a big, old-fashioned musical should breathe. The delightful ensemble opening number traipses around nimbly, and there’s a Sound of Music moment in which our misunderstood heroine spins around a middle-European hilltop. After a while, though, the production’s sheer largeness begins to swamp it. Even the sure-fire goofery of “Gaston,” the pub song that sings the praises of our vainglorious antihero, is too busy, too gigantic—and Howard Ashman’s witty lyrics are hard to hear in the ultra-complicated sound mix, something the simple Dolby of the cartoon never had to worry about.
Thanks to his work on The Little Mermaid and Beauty, Ashman—who died of AIDS-related complications in 1991—had as much to do with the revival of Disney’s animation legend as anybody. His work with composer Alan Menken contrasts with the serviceable-but-pedestrian songs Menken wrote with Tim Rice to fill out the Broadway show; the movie seems to drag whenever it stops for one of the newer tunes. There’s digital fatigue, too. It’s too easy to point out that this movie is almost as much a work of animation as the ’91 picture, but all those CGI backdrops do blur together after a while. Compare the film’s world with the dopey-fun Kong: Skull Island, where—no matter how digital the monsters are—the landscapes, shot in Vietnam and Hawaii, provide at least a sense of some there there.
Beauty and the Beast isn’t a bust, but it does droop; there’s a spark missing. Maybe it’s Emma Watson, whose tiny smirk was fine for “Harry Potter” but not really suited for the big, mythic world of fairy tales. Or maybe it’s the bland Beast. Or, probably, it’s the factory-made aroma around the project, the sense of one more widget being cranked through the Disney assembly line. The widget is expertly polished, but it’s also completely anonymous. Beauty and the Beast, Rated PG. Opens Fri., March 17 at various theaters.