Computer Generated Imagery—or CGI—has reached a point where virtually anything can be believably rendered on screen. Stampeding dinosaurs? Not a problem. Entire futuristic cities? A snap. Massive explosions? The massiver the better.
So it was inevitable, perhaps, that Disney would start to reach into its own lucrative catalog of animated films and turn them into new, live-action ones, with a lot of help from the CGI department. They did it with Cinderella (which I more or less liked), they did it with The Jungle Book (which I loved), and now it’s Beauty and the Beast's turn. And while the film is hardly a bust, it does demonstrate the limits of this practice.
The original, animated Beauty and the Beast is an indisputable classic, with Alan Menken’s enduring songs and wonderful voice work by all, especially Angela Lansbury as the teapot Mrs. Potts. The animation was stunning, a near-perfect blend of hand-drawn art and then-nascent CGI, with remarkable attention to detail, not just in the foreground but the background. It felt opulent and rich—a feast for the eyes and senses.
In Bill Condon’s faithful live-action adaptation, a lot of that opulence feels over-stuffed, even garish, like a cluttered room. What’s more, while the CGI certainly pulls off the personified objects in the Beast’s mansion—the clocks, teapots, and candlesticks all come to believably to life—they don’t quite have the charm of their animated counterparts. (Turns out an animated talking candlestick is much more endearing than an actual talking candlestick.) This is also true of some of the broadly conceived human characters, from the preening Gaston (Luke Evans) to his sycophantic sidekick (Josh Gad). Somehow, as real people they seem less funny and more off-putting.
Still, I don’t want to be too jaded. The film is certainly a spectacle—so congratulations, Disney CGI wizards! And there’s enough talent involved—not to mention the good bones of the original story and music—to make it more than watchable. Emma Watson is perfectly cast as Belle—she’s cinema’s go-to bookish beauty. Kevin Kline is delightful as her kindly father, although it pains to me to see Kline aging into a Geppetto type role. (Note to millennials; he used to be a stud). Dan Stevens never quite allows himself to be haunted enough as the beast—his performance is more droll than Byronic—but he sure cleans up nicely. And if you’re going to cast one person who is up to the challenge of equaling Angela Lansbury’s grace, wit, and charm as Mrs. Potts, you could do a lot worse than Emma Thompson. (Rounding out the seasoned cast are Ewan McGregor as Lumière, Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza, and Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe.)
Of course, before it became a live-action film, Beauty and the Beast was also a long running Broadway musical. And Condon takes some cues from that production, too. The most extravagant musical set pieces pause upon conclusion, as if waiting for applause (my screening audience obliged). The film’s end credits, which flashes smiling images of each of the main players, almost serve as a curtain call. Thanks to all this collective cheering, my audience left the theater feeling giddy. It seems that even the most digital of productions can borrow some tricks from the analog world.