While in pre-production on La La Land, Damien Chazelle reportedly wanted Emma Watson instead of Emma Stone for the lead role. That now looks destined to go down as one of the great what ifs of movie casting history, alongside “What if Ronald Reagan had starred in Casablanca?” and “What if Tom Selleck had played Indiana Jones?” I don’t know if Emma Watson would have been better or worse headlining La La Land, and I don’t know if she would have made the movie better or worse. On the evidence of the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, however, she would have been good. The impact of that would have been even more seismic on her career than it was on the other Emma’s, too. We’ll be talking about this one for decades.
For now, though, we’re talking about Beauty and the Beast, the adaptation of the 1991 animated Disney musical that’s quite a bit of a mixed bag. In addition to the original songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are a couple of new numbers with lyrics by Tim Rice. Like the 1991 movie, this is set in vaguely 18th-century France. (Also like the older movie, this one inflicts Celine Dion’s singing on us over the end credits.) Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos have been tasked with updating the story for an audience with a different understanding of what female strength is. Belle wants to be an inventor like her father (Kevin Kline), and her constant reading is regarded not just as a weird quirk but as a threat by her fellow villagers — who, it must be said, are truly awful in this version. These are neat ideas that don’t get followed up on, and Belle’s falling in love with the Beast (Dan Stevens) still feels like a case of Stockholm syndrome. This script needed a more thorough refocusing and without it, this remake loses its essential reason for being.
On top of that, this thing isn’t visually interesting. The decor is the same French rococo look that we’ve seen before; if you mixed the set photos of this film with the ones from Disney’s live-action Cinderella, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. Director Bill Condon (who previously did Dreamgirls) can’t squeeze any terror out of the Beast’s first appearance or the furniture in the castle coming to life. He was never going to match the animated film’s dazzling impact when it came to famous numbers like the title song or “Be Our Guest,” but those sequences just sit there on the screen in this new version, stubbornly refusing to take flight.
The supporting cast does boast much better singing actors than the original film. I mean, when you’ve got Audra McDonald singing the relatively small role of Mme. de Garderobe, you know you’re being spoiled. Ewan McGregor brings sureness and a light touch to the part of Lumière, showing no signs of quailing before the task of singing lead on “Be Our Guest.” Kline sings a beautiful little song “How Does a Moment Last Forever,” accompanied by a music box. Emma Thompson can’t match Angela Lansbury for delicacy when phrasing the title song, but she’s only a small drop in quality. Luke Evans has been stuck playing one-note intense heroes (the Hobbit films) and villains (Fast & Furious 6), but playing the narcissistic meathead Gaston seems to lift a weight off his shoulders. He gives the most energetic performance of his career, matching well with the toady LeFou (Josh Gad) in “Gaston.”
(Oh yeah, LeFou is gay. You’ve probably heard. Having this character be secretly in love with Gaston explains why he’s so loyal to someone so manifestly horrible, but it doesn’t do a great deal more. This point would have been better made had it been slipped into the film quietly, the way The Lego Batman Movie did with Robin. In any event, it’ll go over the heads of most kids.)
You don’t care about any of that, though, do you? You want to know how good Emma Watson is. She is a well-schooled vocal presence, smooth without hitting the dizzying highs that we’ve heard from other singing actresses in recent Disney movies (Anna Kendrick in Into the Woods, Kristen Bell in Frozen). I could have wished for some more abandon in the singing and the performance in general. Despite the gratifying little yelp of joy that Belle allows herself when she sees the Beast’s enormous library, Watson is just a shade too cool here. That’s because she’s busy slipping into the stately contours of the Disney princess role, and it fits her like it was made for her, which is all the more remarkable because we know it wasn’t. Yet I think this movie star was made for more interesting things. We need to see those things from her.
Beauty and the Beast
Starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. Directed by Bill Condon. Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. Rated PG.