Beauty and the Beast (2014)
The Legend is Reborn …
With a 2012 CW television show, starring Kristin Kreuk and Jay Ryan, a mega successful animated Disney flick, and an upcoming live-action American adaptation, the last thing the world needed was another incarnation of the well-known Beauty and the Beast romance. Thus, we find ourselves with yet another re-imaging of the classic French fairy tale, originally published by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740 — later re-worked by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756 — this time a lavish French-German co-production, alternatively titled La Belle et la Bête. Given the story’s long history, there is no one ‘definitive’ Beauty and the Beast version, although the most famous account features singing teapots and dancing candlesticks, and while it may sound silly, this celebrated Disney rendition certainly packs a heck of a punch. Directed by Christophe Gans, a visual stylist who has worked on several genre films, having enjoyed modest hits in Hollywood with Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) and Silent Hill (2006), this new vision of Beauty and the Beast is an extravagant, effects heavy affair which hews closer to the narrative’s darker side, but ultimately forgets about the heart at the center of its magic and wonder.
Beauty and the Beast opens on an elderly widowed sea merchant (André Dussollier), who lives with his brood of egotistical, spoilt children, with the exception of the thoughtful, sensitive Belle (Léa Seydoux), his most treasured daughter. After three of his cargo ships — containing a multitude of riches — go missing, the merchant’s world comes crumbling down around him and he is forced to relocate to the countryside along with his six children. After learning that his eldest son Maxime (Nicolas Gob) — who has a gambling problem — owes some dangerous folk money, the merchant is chased into the woods by a treacherous thug named Perducas (Eduardo Noriega). Alone in the icy wilderness, the merchant stumbles into an enchanted castle, home of the Beast (Vincent Cassel), wherein he helps himself to food and treasure.
Upon leaving the fortress, the merchant plucks a single rose from the castle’s lush garden for his daughter Belle, however, he is punished by the Beast who informs the merchant that he must live in the palace for the remainder of his days or his entire family would be killed. The Beast does show some compassion, as he allows the merchant to go and say goodbye to his children. When explaining the situation to his loved ones, Belle — feeling somewhat responsible for the whole incident — steals her father’s horse and returns to the remote stronghold in exchange for her father’s fate, where she eventually tames the wild heart of the savage Beast.
Taking its cues from poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, Beauty and the Beast (1946), director Gans sets his picture amidst the period of the First Empire in France, giving him the perfect excuse to exhibit overgenerous costumes and picturesque hyper-realistic scenery, evoking 19th century artwork, while still remaining faithful to the era of the fairy tale’s original incarnation by de Villeneuve in 1740. There’s no denying that Beauty and the Beast looks fantastic, Belle is generally seen draped in rich, velvety fabrics, fashioned by costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud, The Three Musketeers (2011), whilst the Beast’s starkly Gothic fortress sits well against several striking backdrops. Prosthetic make-up, chiefly Vincent Cassel’s Beast — bordering on a cross between a cat and a wolf — is also decent, albeit a little restrictive in terms of emotive facial expression. Additionally, the picture delivers some stunning artful imagery such as a divine parting of a thick pine forest — clearing a passage to the Beast’s manor — and sequences depicting the otherworldly awe of life in the castle before calamity ensued.
Although admittedly dazzling, the flick has no clear audience in mind, playing down the romance whilst playing up the action; the film essentially comes across as an excuse to showcase the excellent work of the European effects houses involved in the project. With that said, some of the film’s ‘creature’ visual effects come across as slightly inferior when compared against the detailed life-like environments, particularly the giant stone totems that surge out of nowhere to aid the Beast in the flick’s final act; strangely these titans feel as though they belong in a Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) type-flick opposed to a Beauty and the Beast re-hash. The same could be said of the creepy CGI-animated mutant foxhounds that silently follow Belle around the fortress. On a side note, despite the fact that Belle states that these hounds become her ‘best friends in the castle,’ she’s never actually seen interacting with any of them, making their presence somewhat redundant.
When director Gans isn’t throwing effects at the camera, this foreign fantasy film loses some of its magic and ends up feeling emotionally flat. Treating its second act as a ‘formality’ rather than a ‘necessity,’ Gans and screenwriter Sandra Vo-Anh, forget to develop a plausible relationship between Belle and the Beast and rely too heavily on the audience’s prior knowledge of the tale to fill in the missing emotional gaps; none of the pair’s encounters suggest that Belle could ever find a place in her heart or fall for the Beast. Despite delving into Belle’s life and the Beast’s past, neither character really feels developed. Furthermore, with little romantic attachment, the film, as a whole, lacks a real sense of connection, going deeper in some narrative aspects, while misstepping others; the motives of chief villain Perducas are rather sketchy — so is his eventual demise — whilst stars Léa Seydoux, Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013), and Vincent Cassel, Black Swan (2010), possess little convincing chemistry. Cassel and Seydoux, who have both demonstrated arresting work in their respective careers, deliver standard by-the-numbers performances here and simply don’t seem invested in one another or their characters.
In terms of second tier players, Yvonne Catterfeld, Rabbit Without Ears (2007), is quite weak as a Princess who falls in love with the Beast back when we was still a Prince, whilst Myriam Charleins, The Girl on the Train (2009), oddly pops up as Astrid, a fortune telling gypsy with psychic powers. On the other hand, Belle’s comic-relief sisters, Anne (Audrey Lamy) and Clotilde (Sara Giraudeau), are relatively amusing in their limited scenes whereas veteran French actor André Dussollier, Amélie (2001), is earnest and convincing as Belle’s caring no-name father, the sea Merchant.
With an overindulgence of colors, costumes and CGI-enhanced environments, Gans’ busy Beauty and the Beast update lacks a real sense of focus and is missing genuine emotion and legitimate heart. While the film’s scope is indeed impressive, Gans might be too much of a stylist for this type of storybook material, with results feeling like a bloated mash-up of genres resembling the likes of Tim Burton’s much criticized 2001 flick, Alice in Wonderland. Headlined by the strikingly glamorous Léa Seydoux and Vincent Cassel, this Beauty and the Beast revision boarders on style-over-substance, as there’s digital wizardry aplenty but very little in the way of real movie magic. Darker and grittier in tone, this fairy tale certainly ain’t for the youngsters or the fluffy Disney crowd.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Beauty and the Beast is released through Madman Entertainment Australia