It seems that every film tangentially related to a fairy tale nowadays is intent on making an action movie. This is a strange notion, since no one really goes into fairy tales for big action spectacle. What’s often lost in these big budget adaptations of these classic tales is the simple emotion that drives these stories, much of it giving way to shiny visual effects that don’t really get the themes of the story across. That’s certainly the case with Christophe Gans’ Beauty and the Beast, which strips away all the simple charm of the romance in order to deliver a big, computer generated climax.
The story is first framed as a bedtime tale being told to a couple of kids. As the story begins, Belle (Lea Seydoux) and her family have been forced to move out of their home into a simpler cottage out in the country. One night, her father (Andre Dussolier) is knocked unconscious while trying to make his way home through a snowstorm, and awakens on the grounds of an abandoned castle. There he receives hospitality from an unseen host. But he makes the mistake of picking a single rose from the garden, angering the beastly lord of the castle. He is sentenced to death, but Belle travels to the castle in his stead. And there she becomes prisoner to the Beast (Vincent Cassell), and learns of his curse.
The movie finds very little new to say about this story. It mainly tries to add back all the little details of the life of Belle’s family that’s often excised in most tellings. But the fidelity to the source doesn’t add up to a whole lot in the end, the extra background mainly serving to delay the action. And once we get to the meat of the story, the film really struggles to depict the growing romance between Belle and the Beast. Perhaps there is something lost in translation: the film is originally in French, and the English dubbing is suspect. But it does seem like the film mostly glosses over these details, the filmmakers skipping ahead, hoping that the audiences will just accept it as part of the story.
It’s a real cop out, the film squandering an opportunity to apply more modern sensibilities to a somewhat problematic tale. Its efforts instead go into crafting a lavish look, with visual effects heavily augmenting the production design. And it’s pretty impressive, but it often doesn’t serve the story very well. The film goes through the trouble, for example, of creating these weird, furry bug eyed creatures that the narration introduces as what would become Belle’s best friends in the castle. But the film never gets around depicting that friendship, their interactions with Belle rare and limited. They seem to have been animated for the sake of having some sort of VFX creature around.
Things only get more problematic as the climax rolls around, and the film comes to insist on being some sort of action blockbuster. The film loses its charm completely as it apes the language of the films that are in some ways the farthest from fairy tales. The film loses even more charm due to the English dubbing. It really is just hard to pick up on the right emotion when you can’t hear the actor’s intention. This is especially difficult for Vincent Cassell, who plays the Beast. The actor is already lost behind the mountain of prosthetics. Without the connection of his voice, it might as well be anyone else in that makeup.
Beauty and the Beast eventually becomes overwhelmed by its need to offer CGI action spectacle. It just seems to forget what the story is about. In the end, this is just supposed to be a story of looking past exteriors to find the soul within. But the film is only concerned with the exterior, all its efforts poured into the creation of an aesthetic that somehow includes big, flashy action sequences. But it’s missing the heart and the soul of the story, the movie just missing the point entirely.