Emma Watson and Dan Stevens lead a stellar cast in a film of innovative elements and refreshed characters
Film Score: 8/10
The threat of any remake is the comparisons viewers will inevitably draw between the old and the new. In many regards, Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), is the same movie as its 1991 animated namesake. The plot is the same, which would suggest an unnecessary retread of already discovered paths, but thanks to a stellar cast, a freshly dusted script, and magnificent music—minus one disappointment—, the story remains as fresh and enchanting as ever.
Belle (Emma Watson) is a beautiful and intelligent young woman who lives with her somewhat absent-minded father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), in a “poor, provincial town.” Her days are spent “with her nose stuck in a book” and dodging the advances of the town’s preening beefcake, Gaston (Luke Evans). But things rapidly change for Belle when her father is taken prisoner for stealing a rose from the Beast, a prince cursed to be a monster. She trades places with her father and soon finds out that the castle she must now call home is enchanted. The inhabitants have been transformed into household objects, and only if the Beast can learn to love and earn another’s love in return will the spell, and his curse, be broken.
Emma Watson proves once again that she has talent beyond her many turns as Hermione. Not only is her singing voice surprisingly strong and a thrill to listen to, but she uses every oportunity to enhance the intelligence and strength of Belle. The script helps by adding new scenes (she invents a laundry machine out of a barrel and donkey) and fresh lines (“You take me as your prisoner and now you want to have dinner with me? Are you insane?”), but Watson uses small moments that are found in the original animation, too. When she says to the Beast, “Come into the light,” instead of waiting for the Beast to comply as the animated Belle does, Watson moves the light to him. It marks her as more decisive than her predecessor and is only a small part of what makes Belle a fitting role model for a new generation.
Dan Stevens and Luke Evans are the other standouts in this film. While Stevens of Downton Abbey only gets to show off his good looks in bookend scenes of the film, he brings a very real humanity to his CGI beast form that keeps the viewer grounded in the character, even when the computer animation at times doesn’t render very believably. Evans, on the other hand, gets to show off his chiseled features throughout the entire film and he handles the strutting arrogance of the character so well that one might wonder if he doesn’t secretly preen in mirrors off set. But just like Belle, both these characters have grown up from their animated counterparts. Their stories parallel each other more closely as the outwardly hideous beast is given the backstory of a once innocent and sweet child before his mother’s death, while the inwardly foul-tempered and conniving Gaston puts on a façade for the townspeople that only LeFou and Maurice (whom Gaston openly tries to kill in this film) ever see beyond.
But no character has progressed farther from the original animated film than LeFou. He is Disney’s first openly gay character (and the unnamed man from the village is the second), but LeFou’s growth goes beyond sexual orientation. Josh Gad plays LeFou with comedic poise, but also with a hint of desperation that truly showcases the character’s desire to be accepted. His only friend is Gaston, who is accepted by everyone, so he imitates the man and sticks close by. But when Gaston’s actions begin to become questionable, LeFou finds that he’d rather be true to himself than follow blindly. So while Josh Gad doesn’t get an MVP award, he certainly gets an honorable mention; LeFou, the Most Improved Player.
Then, of course, there are the enchanted castle inhabitants who have been transformed into a collection of household objects so magnificently in CGI that, instead of simply sitting spellbound, I found myself watching for the moment when they didn’t look as real. This was especially true for Lumiere the candelabra (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth the clock (the wonderfully proper Ian McKellen). Emma Thompson offers a pleasant turn as Mrs. Potts, and Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Audra Macdonald lend their voices to the characters of Cadenza, Plumette, and Garderobe, respectively. All are more than capable at bringing their characters to life, except Macdonald, whose incessantly operatic performance should have been restricted to musical numbers alone.
And yes, all the songs are still there. Alan Menken helms the score once again and he’s brought along old Disney team member, and legendary lyricist, Tim Rice to fill in for the late Howard Ashman. They don’t replace any of the old favorites, but they do make some changes. “Gaston” has a few refrains changed (no hairy chests in this one) and a dance and mock sword fight added that, together with thumping drums and trumpeting brass from Menken, is a thrill to watch performed. “Be Our Guest” has become a dazzling tribute to musical performance, offering everything from an interpretive dance by Lumiere (a very amusing bit of animation) to aquatic ballet and showgirls with fanning feathers. It is also the only scene to truly stand out in the 3D version of the film. The song “Human Again,” which was present in the Broadway adaptation and re-release of the animated film, has been replaced by the more somber “Days in the Sun” to convey hope, instead of assurance, that the enchantment will someday be lifted.
The title song, “Beauty and the Beast,” gets a dressing that unfortunately looked better on the rack. Angela Lansbury sang the original with quiet grace that was matched by Menken’s score. This time around the creative minds decided on a more declarative performance for the iconic scene, using liberal amounts of sweeping strings, swells of brass, and asking Emma Thompson to belt out more than just a few words of the song. For all its fanfare, it stands as testimony to the adage that less truly is more. Thankfully, there’s still a healthy dose of Disney magic to lift you up after being let down, because not even five minutes later Dan Stevens gets the chance to showcase his singing talents in the surprise “Evermore,” a brand-new, resonant song of love and loss. Hearing it in theaters for the first time had me as giddy as the night I saw “Defying Gravity” of Wicked performed live. It was that good.
At the end of the day, all of these pieces do still amount to a remake of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. There’s no doubt it’s very similar to the original. What worked in the old still works in the new, but Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast finds new ground with innovative sights and sounds and characters reshaped for the modern age. It probably won’t be winning any big awards, but it will definitely win a lot of hearts.