Beauty and the Beast does right by its predecessor, delivering a musical experience that both dazzles the eyes and plucks the heartstrings.
Once upon a time long ago in France, a selfish and self-absorbed prince (Dan Stevens) is transformed into a hideous Beast and a powerful spell is placed upon his castle and servants, after the prince turns away an old beggar woman seeking shelter – unaware that the woman is, in fact, a powerful enchantress. Years pass and life continues in a small village not too far away, where a kindly music box maker named Maurice (Kevin Kline) lives with his daughter, Belle (Emma Watson): an independent-minded young woman whose love of literature and progressive way of living makes her an outcast, amongst the more traditionalist-minded members of the village.
When Maurice inadvertently stumbles upon the prince’s castle, he winds up being taken prisoner by the Beast – only for Belle to come after him and force the Beast into making her his prisoner, instead. Despite the Beast’s outright hostile behavior towards Belle when she first arrives, he thereafter begins to show her kindness and care, in turn leading Belle (with encouragement from the castle’s enchanted staff) to realize that there’s much more to her captor than meets the eye. Meanwhile, Maurice seeks help in rescuing Belle from the Beast’s castle and soon accepts the assistance of his village’s popular war hero, Gaston (Luke Evans) – unaware that Gaston’s interests in saving Belle are far less noble than he claims.
The latest addition to Disney’s growing collection of live-action movies based on the studio’s classic animated filmography, Beauty and the Beast recaptures enough of the enchanting atmosphere and whimsical spirit of its Oscar-winning, hand-drawn predecessor. Beauty and the Beast is an unabashed live-action/CGI homage to the 1991 animated film that inspired it (in terms of both its story and visual style), but incorporates enough fresh material into the mix to stand on its own – if not as firmly as, say, Disney and director Jon Favreau’s live-action The Jungle Book before it. Still, this re-telling is far from a disappointment. Beauty and the Beast does right by its predecessor, delivering a musical experience that both dazzles the eyes and plucks the heartstrings.
Drawing from the original animated movie screenplay by Linda Woolverton, Beauty and the Beast screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) retain the basic narrative framework of Woolverton’s script, while integrating additional character backstory material and subplots that further flesh out the larger story. While some of these added elements prove to be more essential and effective at expanding the original animated movie’s fairy tale world than others, they are by and large woven together seamlessly here. Beauty and the Beast in turn succeeds at putting a comparatively modern spin on the themes and concepts of its predecessor, without also undermining the 2D classic that came before it and/or ostracizing longtime fans who feel that the animated Beauty and the Beast holds up quite well, more than twenty-five years after the fact. (It even addresses a few matters that the 1991 version skips over.)
From a directorial perspective, Beauty and the Beast‘s Oscar-winning helmsman Bill Condon fashions the movie as a fanciful, yet stylistically old-fashioned musical that falls closer to his work on Dreamgirls (which Condon wrote/directed) than his efforts on Chicago (which Condon scripted). Condon and his collaborators bring the world and magical characters of Beauty and the Beast to life in live-action with impressive production values, smoothly blending decadent real-world sets with shiny digital backdrops and photo-realistic versions of the famous enchanted servants that populate the Beast’s castle. The new look of the servants will require some adjusting to for fans of the animated Beauty and the Beast, but they work in motion and their own tweaked designs usually serve some practical purpose (see, in particular, the bird-inspired design of Plumette). Similarly, Condon and his team succeed in finding ways to stage such iconic musical numbers as “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” that are clever and visually-engaging, though admittedly less expressive and limited by the live-action filmmaking medium in ways that the animated Beauty and the Beast was not.
While the new songs (once again co-written by Alan Menken) in Beauty and the Beast are not as memorable as the most famous tunes from its animated predecessor, they are important from a storytelling and character perspective here – at the same time, serving to allow the film’s impressive cast to show off their vocal talents. Stars Emma Watson and Dan Stevens naturally aren’t as impressive in the vocal performance arena as the seasoned stage theater actors in the film’s supporting cast (more on them shortly), but both are as good as – in some cases, better than – other A-listers seen in recent musical movies. Watson and Stevens help to make up the difference in the acting department, successfully distinguishing their own versions of Belle and the Beast from their animated counterparts. Stevens in particular impresses with an emotionally rich motion-capture performance, while Watson succeeds in making Belle a heroine more in the vein of Hermione Granger.
Beauty and the Beast gives experienced Broadway performers Luke Evans and Josh Gad a chance to properly showcase their singing abilities, with Evans further delivering an enjoyable performance as the self-obsessed, hyper-masculine Gaston and Gad as the sycophantic Le Fou gaining a bit more depth than his animated predecessor (though for all the talk about his sexuality, he’s mostly only coded as gay). Rounding out the supporting cast in the film are such actors with proven singing chops as Kevin Kline (Maurice), Ewan McGregor (as Lumiere), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) and Audra McDonald (Madame de Garderobe), in addition to acclaimed character actors Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Stanley Tucci (Cadenza) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette) in primarily non-singing roles. The human players and enchanted servants in Beauty and the Beast tend to not be as memorable or stand-out as much as their 2D animated counterparts in general, but are nevertheless entertaining and engaging in their respective roles here.
The live-action Beauty and the Beast may not achieve instant-classic status the way that its 1991 predecessor did, but that’s as much a testament to the high bar set by the latter than anything else. Condon’s Beauty and the Beast delivers enough in the way of classic Disney romance and musical delight (served with a modern edge) that it ought to manage to please most fans of the original animated movie, as well as the younger generation of filmgoers who have never “heard” the Tale as Old as Time before. The film is also worth checking out in IMAX where available, as the enhanced sound and larger canvas offered by the format benefits the eye candy and classic songs on display here (and are worth the higher ticket price required for IMAX viewing).
Beauty and the Beast is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 129 minutes long and is Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images.
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