The question, obviously, is why we need a new “Beauty and the Beast” in the first place. Even a reasonably sentient 8-year-old might ask as much if he or she has seen the 1991 animated Disney version — arguably the peak of the Mouse House’s Second Coming at the turn of the ’90s and the source of the new movie’s strenuous copy-catting.
The executives in the front office might claim creative renewal or the strides made in digital technology over the decades. Really, though, it’s about brand extension and familiarity and maintaining a steady profit stream. How are you going to keep the boys and girls buying the old stories unless you keep selling them as new?
So we have the current wave of Disney remakes of classic Walt “properties”: ostensibly live-action but resting on oceans of CGI; upscale in terms of directors, cast, and approach. It can work, as witness the charming “Cinderella” (2015) and the dazzling “Jungle Book” (2016). Or it can feel secondhand and unnecessary — an ersatz 3-D theme park ride based on a beloved source — as does too much of “Beauty and the Beast.” (Or it can be an unmitigated disaster, as with the Tim Burton “Alice in Wonderland” films.)
Some caveats: Your kids most likely won’t care, because, God love ’em, they haven’t developed any taste yet. Directed by the inarguably talented Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls,” “Gods and Monsters,” the final two “Twilight” movies) in a spirit of demented visual rococo, “Beauty and the Beast” eventually achieves liftoff after 90-odd minutes of exertion. And because Disney can afford the very best, the voices of all those enchanted teapots and candlesticks and wardrobes come from some of our more celebrated players: Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Audra McDonald (Madame Garderobe), and Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza the harpsichord).
All mostly heard rather than seen, alas. And it says more about this new “Beast” that the filmmakers have cast two sharp lead actors only to dull their edges. As Hermione Granger, Emma Watson was the conscience, the brains, and the spine of the “Harry Potter” movies, and the reason she’s even playing Belle in this movie is that a generation of young women recognize her as a foundational role model. Dan Stevens may have been too good to be true as Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” but he has broadened his palette in subsequent movies and he’s currently holding down the center of the freakshow that is FX’s “Legion.”
Called on to fill the shoes and parrot the dialogue of their animated forebears, both actors rise to the occasion but only just. Watson conveys the bookish ardor a Disney Belle needs but her singing is on a par with Emma Stone’s in “La La Land”: in tune, in character, but never able to break out into the kind of sonic glory an audience might crave. This “Beauty and the Beast” slavishly follows the plot and pace of the 1991 cartoon, with some supporting characters fleshed out (as it were) and four new songs from lyricist Tim Rice and original composer Alan Menken that you probably won’t be humming on the drive home.
The movie looks great (if overstuffed), it sounds decent, and it eventually summons a spirit of storybook romance and rightness to satisfy the target kiddies. But this version rarely convinces you it needed to be made at all, and it inadvertently proves that a 2-D cartoon can be the more powerful, cleanly told narrative object. Stevens and especially Watson work hard to establish a chemistry between the trapped Belle and her hirsute suitor, but the “realistic” digitized Beast is Prince Charmless compared to the original, with baby blue eyes that only highlight the fakery.
You sense the miscalculation, too, in the treatment of the film’s villain Gaston, a macho preener who, in the 1991 version’s revisionism, was a fairy-tale hero turned inside out. Luke Evans (“The Hobbit”) gives the character his all, happily hamming up the fatuous manliness, but his big musical number, the tavern-set “Gaston,” is a misfire. Evans’s voice is too light for the baritone brawniness that makes the song so comically overripe, and the fake-opera punch lines of the late Howard Ashman’s lyrics (“I’m especially good at exPECtorating!”) are swallowed up in the din.
(As for the rotund enabler Le Fou, turning him human only makes his crush on Gaston overt, which director Condon and actor Josh Gad winkingly play to the back row. This has caused several moralistic theater owners to boycott the film and led to one of the better recent social-media headlines: “Outrage at inclusion of gay character in film about woman-buffalo romance.”)
On the plus side, Condon turns “Be Our Guest” into even more of a Busby Berkeley-derived showstopper than it was in the first movie. On the downside, why cast Kevin Kline as Belle’s father if you’re not going to give him anything to do? Incidentally, one of the additions to the script involves a time-travel flashback to the fate of Belle’s mother, which finally provides the excuse you’ve been looking for to tell your children about the bubonic plague.
In short, there’s plenty of spectacle in “Beauty and the Beast,” which will be enough for many if not most young audiences. But there isn’t much magic, and what there is coasts on 26-year-old fumes. You and your kids want Happily Ever After? Dust off the DVD of the 1991 original — or go long and dial up Jean Cocteau’s 1949 “Beauty and the Beast,” still the greatest movie version of this tale as old as time.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Directed by Bill Condon. Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 129 minutes. PG (scary wolves, scary Gaston, scary mob, not-so-scary Beast).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.