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.
The main issue is that we take a while to get there, for no particularly compelling reason. The first half hour is largely spent with Belle’s family as they struggle with financial ruin, which feels like excessive amounts of set-up for a story the whole audience knows more or less backwards and forwards, and to throw in a ruffian who mostly exists as an excuse to fire up the third act. Part of the problem is Cassel and Seydoux work so well together that whenever they’re split up, it slows the plot’s momentum. Gans and co-writer Sandra Vo-Anh don’t give the rest of the cast anything to work with, and they can’t overcome the thinness of their characters, although Audrey Lamy and Sara Giraudeau, who play Belle’s sisters, do manage to get some laughs out of the fallen upper-class twits they play.
In the end, this is aimed more at kids than adults, and aside from one or two bare butts and implications of lust, there’s nothing here a grade-schooler won’t see on television, nor is there anything parents will roll their eyes at. It’s a fun, beautiful drama that’s a good way to while away two hours. But if Gans had been able to dial it back just a bit, he might have had something even better.