I don’t like South by Southwest, for a variety of reasons that I don’t want to get into. But one of them is that when it comes to town, options for watching movies that aren’t part of the fest are severely limited. It’s rare that I go a day without watching at least one a movie in a theater, but it had been six long days since I’d seen anything on the big screen. I was probably primed to like just about anything they put in front of me, which means that Beauty and the Beast must be especially bad for me to have disliked it that much.
The basic story is probably very familiar. When a prince (played by Dan Stevens) scorns a witch (Hattie Morahan), she casts a spell that turns him into a beast and some of his attendance into furniture and other assorted housewares. She also gives him a magical rose, and that spell will only be broken if he can get someone to fall in love with him before all its petals drop off. And if his appearance isn’t enough of a deterrent, his castle is enshrouded in a permanent winter and hidden in a forest patrolled by wolves, so people aren’t exactly dropping by all the time.
But then someone does. Maurice (Kevin Kline) is on some unspecified annual journey when a storm forces him off his usual path and onto the beast’s estate. When he dares to pick a flower to give to his daughter Belle (Emma Watson), the beast takes him hostage and intends to hold him forever. But when Belle comes looking for Maurice, she finds him in the beast’s castle, and she takes her father’s place as his prisoner. And then the town hunk Gaston (Luke Evans), who’s smitten with her, sets off to rescue her.
Beauty and the Beast has a lot of potential. Emma Watson is a great Belle, both in appearance and in voice. Gaston’s sidekick LeFou (the gay character, played by Josh Gad, that seems to have some people in a huff) adds a lot of comic relief. Many of the set pieces are elaborate and ornate. But a film that should be gorgeous to look at is irreparably marred by horrendous cinematography. The movie is full of shallow focus that was so annoying in 2D that it must be utterly unbearable if you choose to subject yourself to the 3D version, and its abuse of pull focus could almost be classified as a crime against humanity. Most of the time, you can really only see one thing on the screen while everything else is blurry, but there are a number of occasions (especially scenes that were obviously made to have some kind of 3D effect) in which everything is out of focus. But even with all the cinematography problems, there are far too many occasions in which you can see the beast’s face clearly, and that’s unfortunate because the CGI employed for that purpose is nothing short of embarrassing.
The film’s biggest other problems are encapsulated in the real villain, Gaston. It’s such a one-dimensional, cartoonish character (far more so than anything in the animated version of the movie) that just about every second of him you have to endure is excruciating. And just in case you were hoping for some kind of relief when he participates in a musical number, the atrocious auto-tune employed for that purpose gives it that extra boost beyond any hope of salvageability.
If you want to see a good Beauty and the Beast film, you could certainly fall back to the animated film from 1991. It’s the same basic story and set of songs, but you can see everything clearly and everything sounds good, and it’s a full 45 minutes shorter than the new version. But as good as the animated version is, you might just get depressed when you realize that you’re getting old because that movie came out over 25 years ago. So instead I’ll recommend the definitive live-action version, the 1946 French film La belle et la bête, written and directed by Jean Cocteau.