Disney keeps its live-action train rolling with another enchanting adaptation.
We get it; this movie is a remake – so let us park that elitism for a minute. Beauty and the Beast has existed in so many incarnations, the wilt is starting to show on her pretty rose. The druid tale found new life with the Grimm brothers, followed by an 80’s television show with so much hair feathering, I forgot the plot most of the time. Next up was the Disney animated classic, which morphed into a hit Broadway musical, that turned back into a television program, sans rocker hair. Why should we continue to justify sequels, prequels, remakes, reimaginings, and the like? The truth, of course, varies for all of us, but it is one I find myself asking more and more as I spend hours in theatres, moments of my life ticking away. As a kid, the answer was easy: pure, unadulterated enjoyment with characters I already loved; should it be so simple. Fairy tales have always played by different rules. Here second chances make sense, even for a beloved animated classic.
A tale as old as time. Belle (Emma Watson) wants so much more than the provincial life her father has secured for her; living in a town where a library consists of about a dozen books and teaching a young peasant girl to read is tantamount to donning a pink “pussy hat” at a Trump rally. Tormented daily by town hero Gaston’s (Luke Evans) pleas for marriage, Belle searches for any escape — whether that be spinning in a meadow to the classic chorus of “Belle,” or helping her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) in his workshop. Adventure seems to elude our fair heroine until her father is imprisoned in a mysterious castle while on a business trip. Belle offers to take the place of her father, entering into a life sentence as a prisoner to the enigmatic Beast (Dan Stevens) and his castle of wonders. It is not long before Maurice attempts to return to the castle to free Belle, aided by the guileful Gaston — but everything begins to change when Belle melts the ice around the Beast’s heart.
Like 2015’s live-action Cinderella, much is added to Beauty and the Beast in terms of story elements. Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (Rent) and Evan Spiliotopoulos — a Disney sequel repeat offender — spend the extra running time (clocking in just under two hours and nine minutes) expanding on character development. Belle’s reason for wanting to see more of the world is elaborated on, as is the plight of the Beast’s court. Further, Belle and the Beast do not just fall in love because of location and Stockholm syndrome — each fulfills a need in the other, and love only really comes when earned, albeit on an accelerated Mickey Mouse timeline. Even the supporting characters like long-suffering Gaston henchman LeFou (please stop trying to make Josh Gad happen), impulsive Lumière (Ewan McGregor), and stalwart Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellen) have motives that not only make sense but offer real drive in the narrative.
Further, the cast is outstanding at plumbing these character depths. Watson is lovely as Belle and completely believable in her sense of entitlement, and that is exactly how she comes off: naïve and superficially entitled to more than the townsfolk she calls neighbors. Even the pious Belle must climb a little off her high horse at Beast’s castle, and he affords her that very opportunity. Stevens actually works much better as the pompous Prince in the opening of the film, but if you can get past the CGI and odd makeup choices – more on that in a moment – he’s a fairly atypical Disney love interest.
A host of other characters provide the film with both comic relief and excellent melodies, but beyond, each has their little world of which the audience begs to know more. Particularly fascinating are Stanely Tucci as Maestro Cadenza with wife Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), Emma Thompson as the classic Mrs. Potts, and the love between McGregor’s Lumière and Hadyn Gwynne’s Cothilde. But – and this should be no surprise – Luke Evans steals every minute of screentime he inhabits. In Evans’s skillful hands, Gaston becomes almost relatable in his intentions. As duplicitous as he reveals himself to be, I found myself on the edge of my seat, waiting impatiently for him to return to the frame. Charismatic with a demanding presence, wistfully comedic, obviously self-aware, Evans allows the audience to root for the villain.
Bill Condon hits all the notes of the animated version with pizazz. His “Be Our Guest” spectacular rivals the original in color and energy. His embrace of the mirror motif to signify how the Beast and Gaston are two sides of a coin is inspired; you find yourself wondering about Gaston’s fate should he have been offered the same chance as the Beast was given with his curse: would the former have had the power to change? Similarly, Belle is followed by roses – and though this is more on-the-nose, the allegory is executed well. Even with the additions, Condon’s Beast flows — each scene and song drives the plot forward. However, Condon sometimes can’t help himself, and vibrant colors begin to overpower the senses, leaving little time to absorb the material.
Beyond Condon’s need to stun his audience with superfluous confetti, Sarah Greenwood’s production design leaves a bit to be desired: some scenes are too clearly set on a soundstage, limiting the world in a way more reminiscent of the stage play. These are cut against scenes of excess, leaving a viewer to wonder the reasons for this juxtaposition. Complicating matters in the visual department, the CGI does not quite work on the Beast’s face, as he never actually appears ugly or frightening. With Dan Stevens’ bright blue eyes, how could Belle not fall for him? However, none of these criticisms took away from my overall enjoyment of the film.
Beauty and the Beast successfully plays on nostalgia, but its story additions set itself apart just enough for the film to stand on its own. It’s a delightful piece of Disney magic for all ages with a strong cast, solid screenplay, classic score, and the songs with all know – plus a few new tunes. Find the joy in the youthful abandon of fantasy and give this remake a shot.