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October 1, 2016

Movie Curiosities: Beauty and the Beast (2014)

No, the Disney live-action remake didn’t suddenly burst into theaters several months ahead of schedule. Yes, this is another modern live-action retelling of Beauty and the Beast, albeit one that took two freaking years to reach American theaters.

It should go without saying that this particular adaptation draws from the (public domain) original story, and of course it makes a difference that this was a French production. So while it may not technically be a direct remake, it definitely has much more in common with the revolutionary 1946 Jean Cocteau classic and comparisons are scarcely avoidable for those who’ve actually seen it.

But aside from an obvious cash-in, why would anyone need another Beauty and the Beast film right now? Given the Disney film’s 25th anniversary this year and the remake coming out next March (to say nothing of the CW show that wrapped its fourth and final season only ten days ago as of this writing), it seems like the market is oversaturated at the moment. Well, it bears remembering that the Disney animated version has been the one to define the story in mainstream pop culture. And even a cursory glance of Disney’s history will show that the company is notoriously liberal when it comes to adapting stories to film.

So if you’ve only ever known the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, this movie will definitely have some surprises for you.

To start with, Beauty and the Beast (2014) doesn’t open with a prologue to introduce the Prince (here played by Vincent Cassel), explain his transformation into the Beast, or go into anything about the magic surrounding his castle. We’re left to discover all of that at the same rate as Belle (here played by Lea Seydoux). We’ll get back to that later.

Instead, we open with an unnamed merchant (Andre Dusollier) who gets bankrupted when his three ships are destroyed in a terrible storm. So the merchant and his six children (his wife perished some time ago) must flee to the country and live on a humble farm. Unfortunately for all involved, the two older sisters are selfish and vain to the point where they’re only good at spending money, the two older brothers are greedy assholes who regularly get tied up with criminals, and the youngest brother is so ineffectual and spineless that he’s barely worth mentioning. The only halfway decent human being in the entire lot is also Daddy’s favorite: his youngest daughter, Belle.

To make a very long story short (seriously, we spend fifteen minutes with these characters and their bullshit before the magical stuff is even hinted at), the merchant gets lost and finds his way to the Beast’s castle. The Beast is only too happy to give away gold and precious gifts if the merchant will quietly go away, but then the merchant takes a rose for Belle and that’s apparently a step too far.

The Beast wants the merchant’s life in exchange for the rose, but Belle charges out to offer herself in her father’s place. The Beast accepts, but he doesn’t kill her. Instead, he insists on weird and arbitrary rules while offering Belle all sorts of magical gifts and full freedom within the castle grounds.

While that’s going on, Belle starts getting strange expository dreams about the Beast’s backstory, presented by way of a neatly clever reinterpretation of the magic mirror. I don’t want to give too much away, especially since this backstory is unique to the film (so far as I can tell) and learning about the Beast’s backstory is a crucial driving force behind the plot. Suffice to say that the Prince was obsessed with hunting, and he had the misfortune to try and hunt down the wrong animal.

Then of course we have all the stuff going on back home, as Belle’s brothers get deeper and deeper in hock with a local criminal (Perducas, played by Eduardo Noriega). Incidentally, Perducas has a girlfriend (Astrid, played by Myriam Charleins) who’s a psychic. So of course between Perducas’ bottomless greed and Astrid’s affinity for magic, they eventually find their way to the Beast’s castle.

Last but not least, we have the comic relief servants who tend to everything around the castle. In this adaptation, the servants are the Prince’s old hunting dogs, shrunken down into freaky little gremlin-like creatures. The Prince’s former human servants are also given magical transformations, but we don’t see those until the climax and there’s no way I’m saying any more about them here.

At this point, I’m sure you can already see the problem with this film: There’s entirely too much going on. Two hours isn’t nearly long enough to develop so many characters and storylines going in so many different directions. What’s worse, the more mundane characters and events are all so prominent that giving them their due means taking away time and detail from the more fantastic elements that we all came to see.

It’s especially bad in the case of the title characters themselves. The two characters need so much screen time and development on their own individual merit that they barely spend five minutes’ total of screen time together. As a direct result, Belle’s gradual affection for Beast doesn’t come about through their direct interaction, but through Belle learning more about Beast’s tragic history from a secondhand source. Needless to say, that makes a huge difference.

However, such limited screen time together might not be an insurmountable drawback if the chemistry between them was instant and effective enough. But that’s a tall order in this case, and our leads have no such luck. To be clear, Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel are both superlative casting choices on paper, and they each turn in some fine work as their own individual characters. But when the two of them share the screen together, that spark just isn’t there. Maybe it would’ve helped if Seydoux wasn’t acting against a CGI creation, and maybe it might’ve helped if they had more screen time together to develop the relationship.

But as it is, the Beauty/Beast romance is nowhere near strong enough or credible enough to power the crucial moments where it mattered. And given how the whole story is theoretically supposed to center around this romance, that’s a dealbreaker.

Then we have the matter of theme. A huge part of what made the Disney film so effective was in how it utilized the “looks are only skin deep” theme, which fits perfectly with a story about a young woman who falls in love with someone so outwardly hideous. In any other story, the strong and handsome huntsman would be the hero while the monster who locks away the gorgeous maiden would be the villain, and subverting those expectations was one of the smartest things the Disney film did.

Compare that to this movie, in which the “looks can deceive” theme is entirely absent and there’s no sign of any such nuance regarding the characters. The most prominent theme is the punishment of avarice, a classic fairy tale moral that doesn’t mesh as well with this particular fairy tale. There’s also kinda sorta maybe something about how the Prince was turned into a beastly predator to match his passion for hunting, and that might have made a decent thematic hook if anything more concrete was done with it.

With all of that said, the visuals KICK ASS. Every shot is gorgeous. The sets and costumes are magnificent. The magic is presented with aplomb. The CGI looks dodgy in places, but it’s all still good enough to fit the “storybook” motif.

I can’t possibly stress enough how much the visuals help to redeem this movie. Vibrant colors and magical imagery are such indispensable aspects of any fairy tale movie that I’m really not sure how to elaborate on the point. There’s no denying that this movie successfully imparts a sense of wonder, and it’s obvious that a ton of effort and creativity went into the presentation. It’s just a damn shame none of that went into making the story more cohesive or tightly-paced. The film has no shortage of style or charm, but those can only get a movie so far.

Beauty and the Beast (2014) is a failure, but at least it’s an interesting failure. There’s simply no getting around the lack of chemistry between the two leads, the lack of a coherent or compelling theme, or the overstuffed plot. That said, there are a few good performances, a lot of great ideas, and a presentation that’s gleaming with polish. It’s a movie that fails because it ends up trying too hard, and I respect that far more than the opposite. Even so, it’s hard to recommend this when the Disney version is so freely available (with a potentially fantastic remake coming down the pike), and the Jean Cocteau film would be a far better introduction to the original story.

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