Movie review: 'Beauty and the Beast'

Brad Keefe

Disney's decision to raid its vault of animated classics with live-action remakes seemed like an idea that fell somewhere between shameless cash grab and outright blasphemy. Is nothing sacred? Well, not in Hollywood. Duh.

And yet, somehow, it has worked both artistically and financially so far. Kenneth Branagh's 2015 “Cinderella” isn't a classic on par with the original, but it was better than it had any right to be. And Jon Favreau's 2016 reworking of “The Jungle Book” was even better — a mix of dazzling technology and storytelling.

“Beauty and the Beast” isn't going back as far in the Disney vault, but that brings its own hurdles, as a generation that first experienced it in 1991 has a unique childhood connection with the film. Despite some lofty ambitions, this might be the first misstep.

The re-workings of the “tale as old as time” are minor here. The bookish and independent-minded Belle (Emma Watson) is not looking for a prince to sweep her away. She ducks the persistent advances of the self-involved Gaston (Luke Evans), making her seemingly the only young woman in her village to resist his charms.

But when her father is taken hostage at the castle of the handsome-but-cursed Beast (Dan Stevens), she sacrifices herself as the Beast's prisoner. It's not so bad, though, since the clocks talk and do musical numbers. Then love/Stockholm Syndrome takes hold.

At the helm is director Bill Condon, who's got experience with both musicals (“Chicago,” “Dreamgirls”) and interspecies love stories (the final two “Twilight” movies).

Watson is so well cast as Belle, it seems like typecasting, and she throws herself into the centerpiece musical numbers, which are where “Beauty” really shines. Condon's elaborate recreations of the animated sequences provide a wow factor to go with the nostalgia.

But the central love story plays differently here, mostly because our CGI Beast is somehow more difficult to empathize with. Sure, it requires some suspension of disbelief, and the technology is amazing, but there's still something off about this photorealistic character. (Hint: It's the mouth movements when he speaks.)

Similarly, CGI versions of the cursed-object characters (Lumiere, Cogsworth et al.) are somehow less magical, even if they're voiced by some big names. (This does make for a fun reveal at the end if you don't know who's who.)

Probably the biggest flaw is that “Beauty” clocks in at a beastly 2:09 runtime, and it sometimes finds itself lumbering as a result. Also, for the record, the minor controversy about the inclusion of a gay character isn't anything overtly sexual. He just exists. Maybe think about it if you have a problem with that.

“Beauty and the Beast”

Opens Thursday

2 stars out of 5