Christophe Gans’ retrofitted retelling of the classic “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale opens in appropriate fashion: With a pair of wide-eyed youngsters being read a fable from a distractingly large storybook. That their narrator is played by Lea Seydoux is the first indication that the tale will have a happy ending — after all, she’s telling her own story, that of the warm-hearted beauty Belle and the misunderstood Beast she came to love (and ultimately save). But Gans isn’t especially concerned with the outcome this coupling, instead reveling in overwrought and often bloated storytelling, lush details and some of the year’s most unnerving CGI. In this “Beauty and Beast,” the happy ending can’t come soon enough.
Gans’ script (written alongside Sandra Vo-Anh, in her first screenplay credit) slowly folds in some clever storytelling twists to this so-called tale as old as time, particularly the ones that allow Gans and his creative team to play with imaginative visuals that speak to his ability to really lean into this whole fairy tale thing. But “slowly” is the operative word here, and the nearly two-hour film opens with a needlessly complicated introduction that does little beyond laying out Belle’s criminally boring backstory.
Both Belle and her Beast are mostly absent from the film’s first act, one that instead focuses on her once-rich merchant father (André Dussollier) and the tragedy that literally sinks the entirety of his wealth. Belle flits in and out of the story, one that’s hellbent on explaining the twists and turns of her father’s financial affairs, peppered with brief looks at her mostly selfish siblings, including a wretched older brother (whose inability to pay a debt factors in much later) and a pair of sisters who seem to have been ripped from the Cinderella playbook. It’s the worst kind of village gossip.
Eventually, Belle’s father makes his way to the Beast’s castle, where he attempts to make off with a single red rose — a gift asked for by bashful Belle — unleashing the monstrous Beast (Vincent Cassel), who vows to murder and maim every single member of Belle’s family. Belle, being the only person in her family who appears to be even remotely familiar with the concept of empathy, instead offers herself up to the Beast. “A life for a rose,” the CGI beastie snarls, making his panache for ludicrous expectations immediately — and bizarrely — clear.
The love-crossed pair at the heart of the story share little screen time, and the precious few moments they do occupy even a frame together are marked by a decided lack of chemistry and mostly screamed threats from the Beast that often verge into territory that has the unnerving undertones of sexual assault. At the very least, the Beast is mostly intent on capturing Belle’s heart (or maybe just her body) by alternately threatening her with physical (and sexual) harm and greasing the wheels with some jewel-covered gifts and impressive gowns. Belle, a character defined by her sweetness, often fires back with biting barbs that are just as confusing to the Beast as they are to the audience.
Belle eventually familiarizes herself — and the audience — with the complicated mythology of the Beast and his castle through vivid dreams that unpack a series of important memories, most of which are centered on the Beast’s first wife (Yvonne Catterfeld) and his once-strong love of hunting. Meant to make the Beast literally more human in Belle’s eyes (Cassel returns to his regular flesh-and-bone form for these scenes), the increasingly urgent sequences only serve to illuminate just what a tremendous asshole her supposed paramour really is, both in the past and the present. That loves blooms between the two of them is only a function of the well-trod story they’re rehashing here, as nothing that Gans puts on the screen indicates an affection between either of his characters.
The film is dramatically lit in such a way that it all looks to be taking place on a very lush, very large soundstage, even when “Beauty and the Beast” ventures outside for a series of garden-set scenes or a particularly exhilarating deer hunt. The effect is intermittently painterly and cheap, but it’s nothing compared to the whiplash effect meted out by its CGI. While Cassel’s Beast is terrifyingly rendered, the rest of the castle is populated by toddling stone creatures and a pack of chirping, long-eared house pets that try to charm Belle by gifting her a doll seemingly made of her own hair.
Deep into the film’s final act, Gans finally pulls together his many strings, including Belle’s cash-strapped papa, her deadbeat brother and the heartbreaking turn of events that turned the Beast into his furry form. That’s when Gans unveils the film’s best elements, weaving in other bits and pieces of classic lore, using his cinematic powers to stir up the sort of magic that’s so sorely missing from the rest of the film and going all-in on his questionable CGI creations. And yet he’s still beholden to the constraints of his classic story, ultimately doling out unearned resolutions, all in the name of a “happily ever after” that mercilessly brings the mess to a close.
“Beauty and the Beast”will be released into select theaters on September 23 from Shout! Factory.