The Disney remake of Beauty and the Beast, which mixes live action with computer animation, may not have the elegant simplicity and originality of the 1991 hand-drawn classic, but it’s got enough magic and emotion to easily make it the best movie of 2017 so far. And, together with Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, it proves that Disney’s recent reimagining of their classic animated tales is not just a marketing ploy, but a welcome addition to the company’s canon.
The film, of course, is based on the centuries-old tale of a beautiful maiden who is first imprisoned by but then comes to love a misunderstood monster, who, deep beneath his cursed appearance, is really a handsome prince. This latest version is directed by Bill Condon, who certainly understands the genre, as he penned the script for an even better musical, Chicago. This screenplay was instead written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. While it’s similar to the 1991 version, it includes some interesting departures. Not all of those changes work (particularly one at the end), but they are always interesting, especially a darker moment that allows Belle to peer into her childhood and discover the truth about her mother.
Speaking of character alterations, you’re probably already aware that LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick, is gay in this version. But instead of detracting from the story or expressing an overtly political message, the revision enhances the tale while adding another level of humor. (Josh Gad is hilarious at times, while on other occasions he seems to have stepped in from another movie, as he’s the only major character who doesn’t have a British accent. But, hey, the 1991 film didn’t even attempt consistent dialects. After all, this is a romantic fantasy set in 18th century France, so accents – and complete historical accuracy – aren’t essential.)
Another change is the addition of several minority characters, two of whom are in interracial relationships. The alteration is head-turning because of the nature of the story and because the film’s final shot is not of Belle and the Beast (now transformed back into a prince), as one would expect, but of a lesser character, Madame Gardrobe, played well by Audra McDonald (arguably the film’s top voice and theatrical talent). She’s married to Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), a character created just for this film. The two are nice additions and reflect the historical fact that white men were sometimes involved romantically with black women in the 18th century, although, predictably – and misogynistically – almost never the other way around. Whether or not you like the alterations, you cannot deny that Disney has challenged our cultural and racial expectations by interjecting into the film the issues of inclusion and diversity.
Emma Watson plays Belle and, on the surface, seems like a good choice. But because the Beast (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) is a CGI creation (with a body made from motion-capture technology and the face designed separately), human chemistry is hard to come by. I also wasn’t able to shake the feeling I’ve had since the Harry Potter films that Watson is a lightweight. Admittedly, she’s a beautiful lightweight, but, as the old enchantress who curses the Beast reminds us, “Beauty is found within.”
Kevin Kline, as Belle’s father, seems alternatingly sweet and miscast – and very non-English compared to the other actors. Emma Thompson, as Mrs. Potts, is just as good as Angela Lansbury, while Ewan McGregor as Lumiere and Ian McKellen as Cogsworth are pitch-perfect too. Also excellent is Luke Evans as Gaston, though he doesn’t seem bulky or hirsute enough. (The “every last inch of me’s covered with hair” line is dropped, but the rest of that song is choreographed and enunciated well enough to elicit laughs.)
The real stars are the spectacular production design and special effects, which remind us that this isn’t really a live-action film. It’s largely animated, and the craftspeople (and their technology) should be applauded. "Be Our Guest," as it was in the 1991 film, is particularly mind-blowing. (Eat your heart out, Busby Berkeley.)
At times, I was hoping for a break in the frenetic, swirling camera and more of the quiet dignity of the 1946 French version, which was the first to feature a Gaston-like character (Avenant). This film does pay homage to La Belle et la Bête with its set design and end credits, but more similarities (and more traditional, non-computer generated effects) would have been nice. The 129-minute runtime also might have allowed the writers to dust off some elements of the original 1740 fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, but, sadly, that avenue was not taken. Still, I give the filmmakers credit for infusing this version with more dramatic bite and adult themes, and attempting further character development. That attempt does rob the film of its tightness and beautiful simplicity – and it had the young child next to me squirming and yawning – but the shifts in tone and plot kept me interested in a story I thought I already knew.
The film includes all six songs from the 1991 version, but it also introduces four new ones by Alan Menken (the original film’s composer) and Tim Rice: "Aria," "Days in the Sun," "Evermore" and "How Does a Moment Last Forever." Three of those are not just pleasant additions but add depth. ("Aria" is mostly a throwaway.) Unfortunately, the film doesn’t include songs written for the wonderful stage musical, but "Evermore" essentially replaces "If I Can’t Love Her," which ends the first act of the musical in grand fashion. Both songs give the Beast a stronger voice – literally – than he had in the 1991 film. And, for me, "Evermore" is the dramatic highlight of this latest incarnation, almost enticing me to arise and applaud. The vocal performances (especially Watson) aren’t quite up to the level of the 1991 film or, obviously, the best Broadway and West End stage productions, but they are pleasing.
The movie was shot in 2-D and converted to 3-D. I saw it in the latter format and was bothered by the darkness and motion blur on live-action panning shots, but I was also drawn in by the animation. So pick the format you usually prefer.
Aforementioned imperfections notwithstanding, Condon and his team have breathed new life into a “tale as old as time.” It was a beast of a task, but they handled it with aplomb and, in doing so, have created a crowd-pleasing spectacle and another instant Disney classic.
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