It’s a “tale as old as time” and that’s probably why the familiarity of Beauty and the Beast is so comforting. This live-action adaptation of the 1991 animated classic of the same name wraps the audience up in a blanket of nostalgia that makes it a captivating time at the movies. Disney has had a lot of luck so far adapting the animated classics from their vault into live-action spectacles that don’t stray too far from their source material. If it ain’t broke why fix it, right? Beauty and the Beast is another example of this motif and it’s something that makes the film highly entertaining and a sight to behold but it’s also part of the reason it can’t achieve true greatness. It’s so similar to the 1991 film that it can’t really offer up something completely fresh and when it attempts to, mostly with new songs that extend the runtime, the momentum suffers a bit.
As in the 1991 movie, the narrative begins by showing how a vain, self-absorbed prince (Dan Stevens) is transformed into a hideous and resentful beast. The setting then jumps ahead to introduce us to Belle (Emma Watson), the most beautiful girl in a provincial town in France. Unfortunately for the narcissistic Gaston (Luke Evans), who is obsessed with marrying Belle, she’s also one of the village’s oddest residents. She keeps to herself, supports her father Maurice (Kevin Kline), and is consumed by reading books.
Then, one fateful day, her father disappears in the forest while on the way to the market. Belle sets off in search of him and stumbles on a dark and scary castle. Venturing inside, she discovers a gallery of magical beings – regular household objects that speak and move. These include Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), a candlestick with impeccable manners; Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), a mantle clock with a high impression of himself and his role in the castle; Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), a grandmotherly teapot; and many others. Presiding over the crumbling mansion is the Beast, who holds Maurice captive. Belle’s arrival fills him with equal parts hope and dread – hope that she might be “the one” to break the spell (allowing everyone in the castle to become human again) and dread that she might be repulsed by his ugliness and anger. He agrees to release Maurice if Belle agrees to be his permanent “guest” – a bargain she accepts. Over time, Belle discovers that life in the castle is not as dreadful as it initially seems and that the Beast may actually have a heart under his gruff exterior.
The original Beauty and the Beast is notable for a few reasons. It was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, which really represents how good the film was at the time of its release, and it propelled the new era of Disney in a big way after The Little Mermaid made a splash back in 1989. That film was great in its own right but critics embraced Beauty and the Beast even more and that’s why it’s so fondly remembered. These are high standards to live up to and this 2017 version does for the most part but it’s high to exceeded those standards when they have been set so very high. Perhaps the real triumph here is that the film is a solid companion piece for the original and there is no real need for it to be better. It merely didn’t need to disappoint and that’s something the film never really does. This is solid entertainment from start to finish and that’s saying something when the source material is so adored by the masses.
Part of the enduring magic of the animated film is the vibrancy of the animation itself. It was so vivid in 1991 that it transcended its animated intentions. The live-action film wisely mimics a lot of these visual cues and they’re completely eye-catching in their own right. Certain shots hinge on the nostalgia from those in the 1991 movie with exacting precision. (The most noticeable is probably Belle’s Sound of Music moment at the end of the reprise of “Belle”) which you could put side by side with the original and it probably wouldn’t miss a beat. Also worthy of a mention are the visuals during “Be Our Guest” which probably serve as the film’s best musical and visual sequence. It engages in a deliciously over-the-top display of singing and dancing that offers an unparalleled visual spectacle that is remembered long after it’s over. Also wonderfully rendered is the signature “Beauty and the Beast” scene where The Beast and Belle dance and engage in the film’s best romantic moment. It’s a stand out scene in the original film and the live-action version does it justice here.
Speaking of the music, it’s top notch and handled by actors who offer up some surprising pipes. “Belle”, “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast” are showstoppers and make you remember the originals fondly. Maybe it’s the memories of these songs that make them work but they certainly are covered well here. That could also be why the new songs don’t make as much as of an impact. When the film was over, none of them really stood out and didn’t find himself humming them on the way out of the theater. They also add more to the runtime, which kind of stalls the momentum a bit. At 84 minutes, the original is expertly paced but the 2017 version could’ve used a bit of trimming.
Emma Watson proves to be a perfect choice for the role of Belle. For one, I had no idea she could sing but her voice is serviceable enough to make all of her musical moments worthy of a listen. She also gives the role significant depth which is aided by a bit more backstory for her and the reasons why her mom is absent from the story. Watson’s post-Harry Potter work has been a joy to watch and this role makes me anticipate what she does next. As The Beast, Dan Stevens hits all right notes and gives us a character that is at time frightening, but ultimately, endearing. I’ve actually been a fan of his since the film The Guest (highly worthy of your time) and he has been putting in great work on Legion as well. If anything all of these roles show his versatility and on top of this, he has a strong baritone voice that really resonates. The supporting characters are brought to life with a vibrant combination of computer animation and motion capture work but the vocal talent is what engages the audience. Ewan McGregor reminds us of his musical chops from Moulin Rouge and while Emma Thompson lacks the true grandmotherly tenderness of Angela Lansbury, she still brings her A game.
Then there is our villain Gaston. He’s one of the most notable in the Disney gallery and he is brought to life with all the cockiness and smugness one can muster by Luke Evans. He’s over the top in the best way and he’s completely in line with his animated counterpart. He’s honestly one of the best things about the film. As LeFou, Josh Gad is essentially Josh Gad, which will probably make you love him or hate him. The media coverage of the gay undertones of his character have been blown way out of proportion and while they are there, they’re not nearly noticeable enough for it to really make an impact. If it wasn’t out there already, you may not have even noticed it but that’s just me.
Director Bill Condon and his creative team should be proud of what they accomplished here. While it doesn’t reach the heights of its animated parent, it’s still engaging and should capture the hearts of a brand new generation while making those of us who grew up with it happy that it stands up favorably in comparison.