Beauty and the Beast is the quintessentially French fairy tale, in more ways than one. It was not only written by a French author but Jean Cocteau, one of the giants of French cinema, was the first to bring it to the screen in a 1946 film that in turn inspired the 1991 Disney version we all know so well. So Christophe Gans, best known in America for Silent Hill, is taking on an intimidating pedigree here. And he largely leaves his own mark on it, although just like his other movies, he doesn’t know quite when to stop.
Gans’ version takes a few liberties with the original story, although it follows the tale everybody knows, whether from Cocteau or from Disney, in the broad strokes. There’s a cursed prince (Vincent Cassel), a slightly immature but well-meaning Belle (Lea Seydoux), and a happy ending. Gans adds a thread of tragedy to the story that’s best left unspoiled, and gives it a slightly darker edge; the Beast’s fate is thanks to more than his arrogance, let’s put it that way. Another nice touch is Gans subtly ensures Belle drives the story, which helps tamp down the sometimes questionable gender dynamics comedians have had a field day with in the past.
And, of course, Gans never makes a movie that can’t be described as opulent. You’re unlikely to see a more beautiful, painterly effects-laden movie this year. Gans makes everything look alternately like a fairy tale drawing, an 18th century landscape, a Renaissance painting, a perfume ad, or sometimes all of them at once. It can be absolutely breathtaking, and it says something about Seydoux and Cassel that they can stand out from the pomp and act as if they really are in a fairyland. Seydoux makes playing a silly game of hide-and-seek with the Tadums, little CGI creatures that are a cross between a lemur and a beagle, feel not just natural, but adorable, while Cassel delivers an effective performance both in and out of makeup. The movie is really at its best when they’re feeling each other out and trying to understand each other.