As expected, it wouldn’t be too long until Disney did a live-action retelling of their 1991 animated classic. There are factors as to why they would do such a thing considering its one of their popular titles. It was well-loved, the songs are still hummed and it got a Best Picture nomination. It’s never easy to fix something that isn’t broken and that was the case here. I’m pleased to say there are plenty of things that keep it far removed from the original (even going as far to give nods to the 1946 Jean Cocteau version). At the same time, I couldn’t help but question why go the great lengths to recapture the magic and spirit when all the time could have been used for a more unique variation.
In no way I am saying this is a horrible version. Dare I say, far from it. There are things I liked about Bill Condon’s live-action take, scenes and images I will take away from as a moment of beauty and will have the appreciation to watch it again when the feeling is there. There is effort in this one, everyone is trying their best and having fun with their roles. I am glad to say there are no fart jokes or dumbing down of the source. But part of me wonders why there is something more to the 1991 animated film in comparison to this one.
For the most part, the performances are fine. Emma Watson is no Paige O’Hara, but she tires to give the character Belle something. She does stand by her decisions like her reason to trade her freedom for her father’s imprisonment (Kevin Kline) and shows she is more than a girl with basic curiosity. A backstory is tossed on where she wishes to know the mystery of her mother and to be fair, the execution is fine. Yet, what kills it for me is her singing abilities. There are moments when I couldn’t help but compare her voice to the others around her during the opening number. I don’t know if it was the sound system, but something felt flat or “auto-tuned” when she was in the numbers. There was an electronic sense to her voice which made me wonder if any post-production work as done on her vocals. Her interactions with the other characters are fine and there’s even some nice scenes between her and Maurice that I found touching. But when your lead character can’t belt a tune that makes you feel for the character’s dreams and feelings, your just left with a rather mediocre performance lost in a sea of people who are trying.
Take Dan Stevens who is gives as much heart and soul to the Beast. While he’s no Robbie Benson or Jean Marais, Stevens’ portrayal does show what years of isolation and a heartless nature can do. Despite the beckoning of his servants, he sees no sign of hope and knows the curse is forever even if he tries. There’s a scene when he is looking at Belle from the magic mirror and feels there is no connection. As another petal from the rose falls, parts of the castle crumble as we feel a part of his heart did. Even surprisingly Stevens can carry an emotional tune as his solo before the climax speaks the heartfelt and tragedy of the character. While I wish some makeup work was involved, the CGI at times isn’t too bad on this furry Scrooge.
Other standout performances include Luke Evans as the cocky Gaston, who will go to the ends of the Earth in order to get what he wants. Evans really chews out the scenery as this famed Disney villain with fancy footwork and an overly conceited manner that was part of the original character. You can tell he’s having a lot of fun as much as Josh Gad is as LeFou. I admit, I was worried for a bit as having the lovable snowman as a comedic sidekick, but I’m pleased to say Gad didn’t disappoint. And for those worried about his “big moment,” I assure mommies and daddies everywhere that its not big to the story and played in a subtle manner. In short, there’s a movie with a girl falling for an enchanted prince and a candlestick doing a big Broadway number with flying dishes. I think you will be fine.
I’d go down the list and check off who did a great job, but I can say mostly everyone did their part (aside from Watson but she tires.) Kevin Kline is sweet as Maurice hinting a tragic moment in life, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen have humorous chemistry and so forth. But when it comes to altering the story, that’s a different case. There are moments when this “Beast” adds elements from the original fairy tale (Maurice is held prisoner by the Beast for getting a rose from his garden as requested by Belle) and again some subtle nods to other versions like candelabra hands from the Cocteau version.
But when new story beats appear to explain why the Beast got so cold hearten, Belle wondering about this hidden family secret or have Gaston be a famed war captain, this is when it starts to drag. The focus starts to become more on these new additions and less how the story is being told well. Dare I say, these moments do distract but then you have little details used to fill in some plot holes like what would be left of the castle and its inhabitants if the Beast fails to lift the curse. It’s a double edge sword and some of works. But then you have small additions that can change the nature of a scene. Without giving too much away, let’s just say during a big fight scene near the end, a gun is involved. No blade, no fists and no impalement. Just a bunch of bullets and nothing more. There is no sense of intensity as the action in question is by something mechanical as opposed to a blade. It left me wishing it was more intense, but Disney has banned impalement for a while so why bother changing it something more deadly? Nitpick aside, it makes an intense moment less intense.
The songs themselves are fine as Alan Menken returns with old numbers and some new material by Menken and Tim Rice of “Lion King” fame. Some of the songs like “Gaston” and the showstopper “Be Our Guest” contain some new lyrics that don’t diminish why we love these songs. But the new dance breaks and added beats nearly kill the enjoyment of the rhythm. “Be Our Guest” goes from a showstopper into too long of a showstopper as dinner plates sail in the air like kites and Lumiere stops to pay an homage for “Singin’ In the Rain.” The new numbers try to add some new form of substance and they work for the most part. Belle’s father has a nice number at the beginning, the Beast has a powerful song as he scales the lonesome towers of his castle and a sequence with the servants pondering of their fate is interesting. Even if they don’t overpower the others, they are a nice addition for the most part.
I can’t really say I hated this “Beast.” There are moments I did enjoy and some that did get me teary. Will it be memorable as the original? Probably not. This is just part of trend Disney is doing because they want to see what sticks and what doesn’t. While I’m against the idea of doing a live-action take of this one, it was nice to see an attempt. It delivered when it needed to despite having a few flaws. Had the animated movie not exist, it would be difficult to picture if this would stand on its own better. In a sense, maybe but the flaws in story and some performances would still be there. In retrospect, this is very much how I feel about Ron Howard’s “Grinch.” While nowhere near as powerful as the original, it was a good try.
As I thought more about Dracula Untold, I kept thinking about how the well embedded Bram Stoker’s novel was into the public conscious. You think films would stay true to the source but there happens to be a small amount of Dracula adaptations that stay true to the original book. Even the 1931 Universal classic had its roots taken from a stage play giving a different take. But for all the different takes, each Dracula had one thing in common; they were scary. This variation we are looking at today is not meant to be horror based which is rather unfortunate. But hey, maybe there is something salvageable?
Luke Evans plays Vlad III Tepes, who looks nothing like Vlad the Imapler if you look at his portraits. As opposed to a long haired Romanian that looks like a Sultan, we get a young and innocent Prince with a couple of shirtless scenes to please the YA crowd. But hey, let’s give the movie a chance. And besides, Luke’s performance is not bad. He can be intimidating when he channels his vampire powers and presents his character as a tortured soul much more than the blood suckers in Twilight. True, he doesn’t care the menace that Lugosi or Christopher Lee left seeing they are playing this Drac to be more heroic. But hey, there’s over 100 Dracula movies out there so no worries.
The story to say the least is a creative mixed bag. I say that because there are some things I do like about it but some stuff that I feel iffy about. Apparently, Prince Vlad is under force by a Turk army to cough up 1,000 boys to be trained as soldiers in debt for some missing scouts. An Ottoman from the army thinks Vlad killed the scouts but its revealed that a nearby vampire in a cave took them as a midnight snack. Even more ironic seeing Vlad pays a visit to this vampire to ask for his powers to save his family and people before they are slaughtered by the Turks.
I like part of this idea despite it being a “Game of Thrones” variation. There is some interesting mythos to the Dracula story like his origin and the world itself is very grimy but appeasing to the eye. Again, this is not meant to diminish the original in any shape and does this new take. But unfortunately, there are some limits we have to accept when donning a new version of a story that has been told before again and again.
As stated, this new Dracula movie is not meant to shock or frighten. Instead, it has the pace of a Marvel comic book movie and this is where some of the problems begin to surface. Vlad is giving vampire powers for three days to help save his people. The catch is that he has to resist feasting on human blood or else doomed to be a vampire for eternity. A little fairy tale-ish but I can buy it. I am use to dark and brooding fairy tales like something along the lines of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. But where Henson’s Storyteller knew when to be adult and smart, Dracula Untold feels like something crafted from the mind of a teenager that just inhaled glitter up their nose. The powers Vlad gets from this transformation really seem odd. Who knew a vampire could get super strength, the ability to see warm blooded figures and super sonic hearing.
Does he turn into a bat? No but a whole flock of bats. Its insane. The idea of Dracula and his entire body (along with his clothing) turning into a small bat is understandable but a whole gang of flying rodents? That’s just nuts. I guess each bat is a part of him and in one scene we see Vlad control a huge array of bats to vanquish an army much like in 1999’s The Mummy when Imhotep controls a sandstorm. So yeah, this is very much a Marvel Comics version of Dracula. I can’t say it doesn’t have any creative liberties seeing it is doing creative stuff and clearly there is a lot of effort thrown at it. But at the end of the day, your just looking at a Dracula movie to cash in with the younger crowd who love brooding and tortured souls and superhuman people with problems like Thor or Captain America.
On the other hand, there are some drops of Stoker’s novel here and there but its far and few between. There is this Renfield style character but he only gets one small scene and doesn’t show up until the very end of the movie. The idea of someone assisting a young Vlad could have been interesting and does raise tension when we see him try and avoid biting another one’s neck. But with only so few moments tossed in, it makes the story feel rushed as it builds to the big climax between Vlad and the Turk army while wrapping everything in a matter of minutes than let the story flow naturally. It irks me when little scenes here and there could have been played to be big and plot moving when they really feel more like a small drop of water. There is a good moment when Vlad’s people realize the monster he is and try to destroy him. Its great scene that could lead to some interesting character depth with the citizens he gave a home to and where Vlad stands with his decision. But then we have to focus on this big battle next making everything before that a small road block that could have added something.
Supposedly, Dracula Untold is meant to be part of this reboot of the Universal Monster franchise and it does feel like it. The ending clearly sets up a possible shared universe much like what the films of Marvel Comics are doing which is not a bad idea. Why not have a movie with Dracula teaming up with the Wolf Man? Or have the Mummy try and play off the Frankenstein Monster? Would the Phantom of the Opera be there? And what about the Invisible Man? Does Gill-Man (Creature from the Black Lagoon) have a bad-ass appearance like he did in The Monster Squad? We will never know. But after hearing that these new movies would be more action-adventure and less horror, it has my eyebrows raising in caution. What made the originals work was the horror and the shock aspect. Trying to image say the Wolf Man being set up as something like Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk feels very double edged sword to me. Are these monsters now superheroes or just anti-heroes?
Perhaps this idea of a shared universe is not fully throughout that much. On the other hand, Dracula Untold is a the first start of this “reboot franchise.” And if this is how each movie will be planned to be, I’m curious but at the same time part of me is disappointed. I do like the new stuff in this movie even if it gets a little over the top and out there. And the performances are trying to make this a good movie overall. On the other hand, maybe I’m too hard. This is meant to be more dark fantasy with curses and knights. I don’t think this is a bad movie none the less but the recommendation is difficult. I say see it as a rental just for caution. But fans who are looking for this faithful retelling of the Dracula myth might be biased and disappointed. I once again stress this is not meant to be a horror movie in anyway but more of a comic book movie which is interesting but also unfortunate. I am glad to see there are different variations of the Dracula tale out there and keeping the vampire fresh in the public’s minds. But I’m positive this harmless flick won’t do much damage to those who love the bloodsucking favorite but I’m positive this outing won’t be as memorable either. Not 100% bad by any means but not good either. Then again, as they always say, it could have been a lot worse….