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'Beauty and the Beast' is a deeply inessential take on a classic

But at least Dan Stevens is good!
Beauty and the Beast

Why, yes, that's "Downton Abbey"'s Dan Stevens romancing Emma Watson in "Beauty anDisney

‘Beauty and the Beast’
Director:
Bill Condon
Stars: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens
Rating: PG
2 (out of 5) Globes

Far as powerfully inessential movies go, the recent live-action Disney remakes have been shockingly watchable. “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book” and the new “Beauty and the Beast” aren’t wildly imaginative reworkings of animated classics. They’re the cinematic equivalent of a cover band. They’re the Dread Zeppelin or The Bootleg Beatles of the movies, hitting all the same story beats and redoing all the beloved moments, only with real flesh-and-blood people instead of hand-drawn wonders. The movies are so lavishly, lovingly made you can almost ignore that the only reason they exist is because Disney can’t make money on their original, self-proclaimed “masterpieces.” After all, no one buys movies on home video anymore.

And so now we get “Beauty and the Beast,” in which one of the studio’s finest achievements — the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture, of only three — is turned into a handsome but ultimately so-so cover. The song, as they say, remains the same: Emma Watson’s Belle is interred in the castle of a hideous man-monster, played by Dan Stevens under copious makeup and CGI, his natural baritone lowered with what sounds like the device kidnappers use to distort their voices when calling the police. He comes off like a rage-aholic, but Belle gradually senses he’s really crying on the inside. Meanwhile a platoon of talking objects (a clock, a dresser, a tea cup) try to hook these two kids up.

There’s been talk over whether this is a skeezy case of Stockholm Syndrome, selling little girls the belief that they should fall for the horrible men who keep them captive. It’s a testament to the remake that they tell their story with great sensitivity, avoiding the dreaded #problematic. As ever, it’s the Beast who changes, not Belle. Stevens doesn’t play him as the refined sociopath of Jean Cocteau’s peerless 1950 take on the story. His version is a hunched-over, self-hating freak — the type of guy who would otherwise live in his parents’ basement. He’s visibly embarrassed that a pretty lady is there to see his lack of grace and his yen for eating soup without a spoon, and has the romantic fatalism of a 40-year-old virgin.

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Stevens is one of the best parts of this “Beauty and the Beast” — right up there with Luke Evans’ blustery, conceited Gaston, with Kevin Kline’s doddering father, and with Ewan McGregor’s spastic, ostentatiously French-accented candelabra-man Lumiere. The latter is terribly charming, though he has a literal design flaw: In the animated original, Lumiere had a boundlessly expressive face and killer eyebrows. In this more realistic version, you can barely see his eyes or mouth. It’s a bouncing piece of CGI metal with the voice of Ewan McGregor emanating from somewhere.

That’s one of many trade-offs you get by going live-action. Another is Emma Watson: Strong as she makes Belle as a character, she’s no Paige O’Hara, who voiced the original. Watson’s singing voice is thin and reedy; she makes Emma Stone sound like Adele. Wonderful as musicals are and however great it would be if they were a thing again, the problem is we’re almost 50 years removed from the age when they were a steady Hollywood genre. That’s at least two generations of movie stars with little to no knowledge of how to sing and dance. And you can tell: The musical numbers in this “Beauty and the Beast” tend to be leaden and ever-so-slightly off-rhythm, as though the dancers’ feet kept getting stuck in molasses. Bill Condon is too heavy a director, as he was with “Dreamgirls,” unable to achieve the lightness and grace required. (His take on “Be Our Guest” has nothing on even the old “Simpsons” parody, “See My Vest.”)

Still, Condon does prove better when things get intimate. Scenes between Belle and the Beast have the subtlety and depth of feeling the rest lacks. When it’s just the two of them, the 2017 “Beauty and the Beast” doesn’t sound like a mere cover. It sounds like an excellent cover, the one that makes you, however briefly, forget about the original.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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