You go to the movies with the Hollywood you have, and these days that means looking for the good in franchises and remakes, looking for pre-sold films in which corporate predictability gives way and real creativity shines through. With that in mind, let’s consider two of the biggest hits of the winter-into-spring: Logan and Beauty and the Beast, one an object lesson in how to make a franchise story that’s also a real movie, the other a lesson in how to just cash in without doing anything to justify your grab.
“Logan,” for non-adepts, is the real name — technically the adopted real name, but let’s not go too far down the rabbit hole — of the fierce, mutton-chopped mutant better known as “Wolverine.” He has been played by Hugh Jackman in a quite remarkable number of X-Men films now — six group outings (counting cameos) and two Wolverine-specific titles — with Jackman each time contriving to bare his rugged chest as he deals out justice with adamantine claws. The character has a detailed and tormented backstory, so Jackman has also occasionally contrived to show his acting chops in the part — but only intermittently, in stories that aren’t particularly interested in the human element inside their moneymaking fantasy machine.
This movie is different. Directed by James Mangold, it’s set in a near-future America that hasn’t been made great again: It’s got Trump’s wall marching along the Mexican border and self-driving trucks tearing down the highway, but otherwise it just seems like today’s United States on a hollowed-out, cynical, and stagnant sort of day. Of course, the movie is actually set in the X-Men universe, not ours, but it’s a timeline from which mutants are in the process of being banished: The famous X-ers are getting old, and no new mutants have been born in 20 years. Logan’s claws, welded into his quick-healing and thus all-but-impervious body by government scientists years ago, are now slowly poisoning him from within. But that’s a better fate than the one claiming Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), his longtime mentor, whose superbrain is decaying toward dementia, causing an occasional psychic flare that paralyzes anyone in the vicinity.
As they face the death of their powers, these men are suddenly given purpose by the appearance of a young mutant, Laura (Dafne Keen), a feral child who seems to have Wolverine’s abilities and perhaps a share of his DNA. They have to get her to some sort of promised Canadian safety, while hunted by a corporate–governmental alliance embodied by Richard E. Grant, Boyd Holbrook, a host of disposable henchmen, and one rather more memorable heavy. Along the way they stop at a hotel and Logan watches Shane, an on-the-nose callback but still an appropriate one for a movie that’s more of an ultraviolent western than a standard-issue superhero flick. And the cast of Logan, Jackman and Stewart especially, seem eager to prove that something human need not be alien to stories about mutants, mining real pathos from their respective characters’ dying of the light.
The film as a whole is still imperfect, a little too pleased with its own violence — but it is both surprising and moving as genre pictures go, and it makes the viewer grateful it exists. Which is not at all the reaction provoked by Disney’s big, expensive new Beauty and the Beast, in which the whole gang from the 1991 classic is back, but this time as flesh-and-blood — or, in the case of the enchanted candlesticks and teapots, computer-generated — characters rather than as animation.
Big-budget live-action remakes of its classics are the latest way for Disney to create all-but-guaranteed hits, and the first two, 2015’s Cinderella and last year’s Jungle Book, were actually pretty good. But they also reached further into Disney’s past and did more to make themselves original. The animated Beauty and the Beast is one of the studio’s modern peaks, only a generation old, and the remake’s makers apparently didn’t want to take the risk of doing anything too boldly creative lest it look disappointing by comparison. So instead we’re just being sold the same exact story as the animated version, the same characters and twists and songs, with a few middling musical numbers added and a little narrative padding stuffed in.
And stuffed is the word to describe the result. Nothing that’s added feels fresh or particularly worthwhile (including, yes, the barely there “gay moment” involving Josh Gad’s LeFou), and the extra material and extra running time just add to the claustrophobia induced by attempting to recreate beloved animated scenes with more clutter and less art.
Each performance is fine on its own but wanting compared with the original: It’s not Ewan McGregor’s fault that a talking candlestick is more fun illustrated than made “real,” or Emma Thompson’s that Angela Lansbury’s immortal take on Mrs. Potts is daisy-fresh in memory, or poor Emma Watson’s that, as game and pretty as she is, she doesn’t have quite the pipes or the beauty for the part of Belle. Luke Evans, as the cleft-chinned bad guy, gets close to filling Gaston’s outsize shoes, but the rest is just a talented cast’s imitation of a classic, an homage that exists only to tug at our nostalgia and make bank.
Reinventing classics isn’t unique to our age of remakes; it’s a trick as old as time. But in this case, when the lights come up, you’ll realize that there was no magic in the trick.