Rarely in this day and age do I feel bored. I spend most of my time vexed, frightened, appalled, or offended by some malignant calamity to hail from the bowels of the modern era, or by some piece of fiction reflecting our regrettable chapter’s conflicts and themes. But because the stakes of the present day are so high, I find few opportunities to revel in outright boredom. That—and I mean this, if you can believe me, in what is not entirely a backhanded manner—is the special thing about the new live action remake of Beauty and the Beast.
Yes, the movie is often dull, but it is dull for a reason I find remarkable: it feels completely estranged from the harrowing world of today. Part of this can be thanked to its uncanny faithfulness to the 1991 original, whose visage can’t help but be noted during any number of episodes of familiar scene blocking or mimicked line readings. Whereas other subjects of Disney’s live action reboot frenzy have employed efforts toward modernization, Beauty and the Beast opts not to reinvent, but only to revive. In lieu of bringing a classic tale to the world of today, Beauty and the Beast’s primary mission statement seems to be transporting us back in time. Maybe not all the way to the 1700s, but at least to a period when it was possible to make a movie like this in the first place.
Dangerous though it may be to beg comparison to its predecessor—and believe me, the remake often walks away wanting—there’s an inherent excitement in seeing something as canonically revered, or at the very least recognized, done up in new form; curiosity over what lurks behind winding corners of this new iteration of Belle’s provincial town, or how on Earth they’ll manage to pull off an ordeal like “Be Our Guest” escorts us through the first act of the film, and with occasional vim at that.
But every time we step beyond spitting (or expectorating) distance from any recognizable set pieces, the energy fades once again. Luckily enough, they’re not exactly in short supply. Even the more lackluster renditions (the title ballad, for instance, doesn’t work quite as well as stronger numbers like the riotous and physically engaging “Gaston”—and let’s face it, nobody ever liked “Something There” to begin with) encourage just enough intrigue to restart the ignition upon their opening notes. There's something clunky about each performance, but something cute about each one, too.
We spend the interim dullards forcing an interest in the love story that blossoms, at what feels like an even hastier pace this time around, between Belle (Emma Watson) and her unnamed beastly captor (Dan Stevens). Underwritten and often humorless, the central pair can’t exactly stir up a courtship that plays on par with cabaret numbers ordained by literal flying saucers. Luckily, these slower nonmusical stretches benefit from the charms of supporting players like Kevin Kline as Belle’s scatterbrained father Maurice, Luke Evans as her lunk-headed suitor Gaston, and Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen, who prompt sheepish cackles notwithstanding the off-putting design of their computer animated characters, schmoozer candelabra Lumiere and stuffed-shirt carriage clock Cogsworth.
Tough though it may be for any straightforward romance to match metal with the screwball antics of animate flatware, part of the fatal undoing of this new Belle is in star Emma Watson’s ostensible yearning for material with even a microbe of real-world edge. Watson, a noted talent and card-carrying heroine of her day, feels curiously out of place as a doe-eyed yesteryear princess like Belle, much in the way a Beauty and the Beast this beholden to its forbearer’s genetic code feels to the big screens of 2017.
Though there may well be a more intelligent way to reconcile this disharmony of time and space, I couldn't help but translate it to regular boredom. Serviceable though much of it may be, Beauty and the Beast doesn't quite know how to make its film feel like a faithful reworking of the '91 classic without bearing the weight of its shadow, nor how to stay true to the original's idyllic character without feeling weightless in the world of today. But perhaps it does have a few tricks up its sleeve--without much in the way of legwork, it does manage to repeatedly amp us up with the promise of every impending song. Perhaps most of the energy derives not from showmanship, but from our own anticipation of how these old favorites will play out in flesh, blood, and digitized ones and zeroes. Whatever the psychology behind it, Beauty and the Beast did indeed manage to pull me out of the very doldrums it impose with every strike of the chord.
Rating: 3 out of 5 burritos
Michael Arbeiter, who uses antlers in NONE of his decorating, is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.