The 1991 Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast” was perhaps the best and most melodic hit the studio had during its renaissance period for animated features, and it in turn spawned a long-running stage musical. This new mainly live-action Disney version of the oft-told story directed by Bill Condon feels largely perfunctory. Where it flounders most is on the miscasting of several crucial roles.
The guiding principles in this live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” seems to be “let’s get this done” and “moving right along.” The opening prologue, where we see a selfish prince (Dan Stevens) transformed into a beast as punishment for his superficiality, is rushed-through in a chaotic and graceless fashion that still manages to provoke a pertinent question: If the beast is supposed to be ugly, why is he as cute as a puppy dog in nearly every film of this story, including the famous semi-surreal 1946 movie directed by Jean Cocteau?
After the prologue, we get scenes that introduce the heroine Belle (Emma Watson) and follow the outlines of the 1991 version without any of that film’s zest or edge. Watson’s gentle and patient presence does not suggest a rebellious and aspirational outsider who longs for more than the “provincial life” of the town she is living in. And Luke Evans is not at all suited to the role of the villainous, sexy, and menacing Gaston, which requires a boisterous, preening actor who can get some hammy laughs out of being vain. Evans can only manage the menace of the part, and even his menace is too monotonous and heavy-spirited. (A young Kevin Kline might have played this role perfectly, but he is wasted here as Belle’s father.)
This “Beauty and the Beast” improves once Belle reaches a castle where she is imprisoned by Stevens’s Beast and attended to by a motley group of animated household objects, all of which are voiced by name players like Ian McKellen and Stanley Tucci. Most impressive of these voice actors is Ewan McGregor, who uses his soaring tenor to fine effect on “Be Our Guest.” This is the one number in Condon’s “Beauty and the Beast” that feels visually impressive and even spectacular, and it suggests that McGregor would have made a far more apt Gaston himself. The songs here are a mixture of old favorites from the 1991 movie and a few new tunes; none of the latter are particularly memorable.
Cast as the teapot Mrs. Potts, Emma Thompson sings the title song with some sweetness and warmth, but there is a noticeable difference between her “character voice” attempt at a Cockney accent and Angela Lansbury’s far more genuine and grounded Cockney quaver in the 1991 animated version. (Since Lansbury is still very much game and at liberty, it might have been more touching and in keeping with tradition to have had her reprise her Mrs. Potts for this version.) And it does seem a shame to cast Audra McDonald in the role of a trilling wardrobe without giving those storied pipes of hers more to sing here.
Most problematic in this version is an attempt to make Gaston’s sidekick Le Fou (Josh Gad) into a gay character who is in love with his friend. This isn’t a bad idea on the face of it, but it seems like Condon and scriptwriters Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”) are trying to hedge their bets on this issue, and the result is coy and unconvincing. Especially at the climax of the film, when the attempt to match Le Fou up with a proper romantic partner feels very clumsy and shoe-horned in.
Of the leading actors, only Stevens is able to make something of his part as written, and he reveals a strong tenor singing voice of his own here. His Beast is amusingly huffy and sulky and proud, and his blue eyes glow with a kind of warmth that come close to making the romance between the Beast and Belle somewhat believable, if only Condon would give him just a little more time to develop it.
Condon’s “Beauty and the Beast” is the kind of enormous production in which it seems as if anxious executives were pressuring and second-guessing the decisions of the creative team. The result is a star-stuffed relay race that looks like an assignment more than anything else.