Remakes can go one of two ways: soaring into excellence and surpassing the original content or flying down a vomit mountain of terrible in a fiery blaze of regret. When these remakes involve beloved childhood classics, the stakes are higher. Film studios are no longer dealing with freshening up plots or characters. They’re now tasked with improving upon indelible childhood memories.
No company knows this better than Disney. That’s why they’ve slated at least five (yup, five) live-action remakes of animated classics. Two have already been relatively successful. Both Cinderella and Jungle Book reinvigorated traditional Disney films with fresh visuals and more rounded characters. Both received critical acclaim and accolades (for Cinderella, costuming awards and Jungle Book won an Oscar for best visuals).
However, there’s a new beast in town. When Disney announced its next live-action remake was to be Beauty and the Beast, fans of the 1991 classic were largely excited and elated to see Belle, Beast, Gaston and the gang hit the big screen once again. Sure, there was some hesitancy. How do you improve upon the film that forced the Academy to create the Best Animated Feature Film category? How do you better the plot, character development and incredibly lush music composed by Disney royalty Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman?
For this writer, the only crucial requirement Belle’s actress needed was to sing and sing well. Paige O’Hara slayed the original voice acting with pristine vocals and emotional delivery. Susan Egan did the same as she developed Belle for the Broadway production. Yes, this author knows good and well that this is a live-action film. The same oversold expression found in both Broadway and the animated classic isn't necessary. HOWEVER, Belle’s character development is directly tied into her singing--arguably more so than any other princess in the Disney canon.
Emma Watson’s voice is sweet, subtle and schoolgirlish. But the positives stop there.
Take for instance one of Belle’s most important songs, “Belle Reprise.” You know, the one where she runs across the field belting, “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere / I want it more than I can tell.” (Ugh, chills just thinking about that moment.) That moment is what lyricist Howard Ashman dubbed the “I want” song--a pivotal moment when the character unearths her true calling. The audience, then, understands the character’s motivations in its purest form before watching the heroine reach the first climactic peak.
Take a second and access Spotify, iTunes, or any other media player. Seriously. You’ll want it for the rest of this article. Pull up Emma Watson’s performance of “Belle Reprise.” Take a listen. Now, find Paige O’Hara’s version of the same song. Press play. You’ll probably notice how much easier O’Hara delivers the lines compared to Watson’s at-times strained vocals.
Spoilers: It’s like that with nearly every song involving Belle in the entire cast recording. Several (thousand) people have pointed out online noticeable autotune moments peppered in as well.
But it would be dishonest to say it's all bad. Just for fun, let's make some more observations about the live-action Beauty and the Beast cast recording (starting with the more impressive and working our way down the ladder):
Thank heavens for both Josh Gad and Luke Evans. Gad (Book of Mormon, Frozen’s Olaf) has extensive vocal training and no fear in embracing the fact he’s literally the ONLY person who could do LeFou justice. As for Luke Evans? The higher timbre suits the burly Gaston well, especially since Evan’s Gaston isn’t quite as physically imposing as his animated counterpart. And the choral harmonies? Sublime. The humor in refreshed lyrics even adds a bit more pizzazz to one of the most iconic villain’s songs in cinematic history.
THE MOB SONG
Yes. All the yes. Evans absolutely outdoes himself with his delivery. Unless they’re massive Gaston fans, this isn’t even a song most people remember from the original film! Gaston sounds like he’s foaming at the mouth with rage. The added lines give dimension and even more insight into Gaston and LeFou’s characters. “In times like this, they’ll do just as I say,” boasts Gaston. This writer hopes the subsequent fight scenes can add to the energy of the Mob Song.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST REPRISE
Oh, sweet Audra McDonald. Can you stop being so perfect? Mere mortals cannot compete with your vocal ability. This is, of course, why she’s won four Tony Awards and outshined Carrie Underwood in Sound of Music Live. (We’re not entirely sure what “Aria” will be used for, as nothing like it exists in the original film, but it’s intriguing. Probably something done as an expository filler.) Emma Thompson putting in a Ms. Potts bit feels so fitting for the character. Fitting and satisfying ending overall.
BE OUR GUEST
Ewan McGregor leads an interesting rendition of a high-stakes song. Josh Gad himself noted that when he saw the animated original in theaters, the audience erupted into a standing ovation immediately following this scene. Fans of Moulin Rouge will probably enjoy McGregor’s performance. Granted, in any variation of Beauty and the Beast, "Be Our Guest" is mostly eye candy boosted by dynamic orchestrations and fast-paced lyricism. One surprising gem is Emma Thompson’s Ms. Potts lines. In this recording, she delivers an endearing performance as Ms. Potts clearly struggles to put on the most perfect dinner for her guest.
Oh and they changed the “ten years we’ve been rusting” to “too long we’ve been rusting.” This will no doubt clarify some of the aging inconsistencies critics have pointed out with the original film.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Okay, no one will ever beat Angela Lansbury. No one. Ever. And Emma Thompson is a phenomenal, loveable and talented actress. However, when compared with the iconic Lansbury performance, Thompson’s delivery doesn’t feel as crisp. She sometimes sounds as if she’s Sweeney Todd's Ms. Lovett rather than Ms. Potts. Granted, some of this might be production rather than Thompson herself. The orchestrations soar over and seem to muddle some of the song’s most powerful moments.
DAYS IN THE SUN
Aka “the insanely depressing version of the cut-for-time classic Human Again.” On a positive note, this song features Broadway Queen and actual angel on earth Audra McDonald’s stunning soprano. It took this writer a second to realize that Belle actually sings the last few lines of the song. She sounded exactly like a boy's voice from the introduction. It’s also unfortunate that Belle’s lines get overshadowed by McDonald’s soprano overlay.
This writer needs to admit something before discussing Dan Stevens’s “Evermore.” She’s obsessed with Downton Abbey and Dan Stevens. With that being said, the only singing this writer knows of Stevens’s prior to this film comes from that one time when Matthew Crawley sang with Lady Mary in that one really emotional episode of Downton. It hurts a little to hear his sweet baritone mixed to fit the Beast, but at least Stevens adds more vigor in his one song than Watson offers in most of hers.
The Beast’s song always seems in an awkward spot. It’s technically the Beast’s “I want” song, and the Broadway show had its own version called “If I Can’t Love Her.” However, this song follows the Beast letting Belle go from his castle, and the subsequent action is much more interesting. Hopefully, this placement is more effective than the “If I Can’t Love Her” sequence.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (POP COVER)
Not even going to touch this one. Nope. Won’t do it.
In short, the cast recording is passable--even enjoyable--if you’re unfamiliar with the original 1991 soundtrack or any iteration of the Broadway show. However, if you grew up on Paige O’Hara, Jerry Orbach, and Angela Lansbury, you will be sorely disappointed in these performances. Josh Gad, Luke Evans and Audra McDonald, strong as they are, simply cannot carry the film given their smaller roles.
Emma Watson can do a great many things. She’s a talented actress. She knows how to pick interesting roles. She wears environmentally-friendly and safely sourced clothing. She can speak before the United Nations with ease. She can inspire a generation of young girls to embrace their talents. She can eloquently champion equal rights between the genders. None of this, however, means she can or should sing. At the heart of this film lies a heroine who confidently expresses her fears, doubts, frustrations and realizations through song. She deserves an actress who can do the same.
AUTHOR'S NOTE, 3-18-17: A previous version of this article assumed the male voice at the beginning of "Days in the Sun" belonged to Chip. This assumption was made prior to the film's release. Upon watching said film, the author understands who the voice belongs to (but it shall not be named because SPOILERS). The current review has been corrected for the sake of accuracy.