Unnecessary live-action version doesn't live up to animated classic

Unnecessary live-action version doesn't live up to animated classic

This tale as old as time gets an extravagant makeover in the live action version that Disney is poised to make box office history with this weekend. Bill Condon, the director, goes full tilt and it’s as overdone as Neil Simon plays in community theater.

So I guess this is to be expected in a live action version, but somewhere along the way someone forgot that there is a reason they call it animation — because the characters are animated, as in lively. From its clumsy start as Belle wanders the “provincial” town she lives in, a perfectly cast Emma Watson manages to make Belle into one dull dame. She’s sour and dour and acts like she was made to take a huge pay cut to play the part. (Actually, she was. Disney drives a hard bargain.) Chosen for her looks over her singing voice, Watson’s auto-tuning in the first musical number is obvious, and she never seems to catch her stride from there as one of Disney’s most popular heroines.

As colorful as it is disconnected, this live version has lost touch with itself. Other than Watson, who seems to be in a different movie, the rest of the characters shamelessly overact. Luke Evans plays Gaston as if he were the local sociopath stalking Belle, planning to clunk her over the head and drag her back to his place. To compensate for his nastiness, Josh Gad plays his sidekick Le Fou so broadly it looks like he’s auditioning for a drag show.

Kevin Kline just disappears as Belle’s father, Maurice, who starts all the trouble when he wanders up to the Beast’s iced-over palace and is thrown in the dungeon. As the story goes, the Beast was once a spoiled, selfish prince until an enchantress cast a spell over him and his staff. He would forever remain an ugly beast unless someone declared their love for him, and time is running out, until Belle volunteers to take her father’s place as the lonely Beast’s hostage.

This version sticks so closely to the animated original that you have to ask why it was made. Almost frame for frame, Watson and Dan Stevens (the Beast) re-enact the cartoon as if Condon was determined to duplicate it. All the other little characters are there after the opening scene that allows you to put a human face to the character. Ewan McGregor takes the part of the candlestick, Lumiere, and his love interest, Plumette the feather duster, is Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Ian McKellan voices Cogsworth, the old clock, in his inimitable gruff avuncular manner. Stanley Tucci plays Maestro Cadenza, and Audra McDonald does the honors as Madame Garderobe, only what a waste not to have her sing the title song, which is left to Celine Dion in the closing credits. Emma Thompson is perfect as Mrs. Potts, the talking teapot, and her son the cup, Chip, is voiced by young Nathan Mack.

Stevens, of “Downton Abbey” fame, is unrecognizable as the Beast. For most of the movie, he is digitally mapped using CGI technology and it is slightly noticeable, especially in the full body scenes. For close-ups, he is under the thick latex layers that give him the hairy, scary look, but limit his facial expressions to almost nothing.

This is a wonderful fairy tale of a story given the grand, high budget Disney treatment it deserves. It’s just too bad it doesn’t reach its potential to become the classic that the animated version has become. At my screening, there were dozens of little girls dressed as Belle in their gold gowns, waiting to see something really special.

I know they were not disappointed, but I expected more — or in this case, maybe a little less.