Yes, Disney has already given us live-action versions of animated films like Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and The Jungle Book in recent years — and lest we forget, this isn’t a brand-new idea (101 Dalmatians!) — but in a way, Beauty and the Beast feels like the riskiest of them all so far, as far as potential backlash is concerned. Though now 26 years old, Beauty and the Beast is still much more recent than those other animated classics, and many can clearly remember growing up during the film’s initial release and explosion in popularity. Simply put, it has more of a “This movie is mine” feel among some fans, who could be quite upset if this new version isn’t handled well.
Fortunately, it’s handled very well indeed. Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos and director Bill Condon have done a commendable job of taking the 1991 animated movie and delivering what fans want, while also offering enough tweaks to not feel like a note for note copy offering nothing new.
Let’s be clear though, you know exactly what to expect from the storyline here, in all the most meaningful ways. The Beast (Dan Stevens) is a vain, casually cruel prince punished by a curse that has transformed him into a monster, and Belle (Emma Watson) is the book-loving local girl looking for more than her small village can provide. And so begins some imprisonment, unexpected bonding moments, and a love story for the ages!
As a huge fan of the animated film, I felt a tremendous sense of relief simply watching the opening number, “Belle,” performed. Once you get past the “Hey, it’s Emma Watson dressed up like Belle!” aspect, it’s easy to simply sit back and enjoy a well executed, lively version of a great song, and realize this is a film made with a lot of love and care for the source material.
Beauty and the Beast is expertly cast, beginning with the title characters. Watson brings her innate intelligent, thoughtful nature to Belle (being typecast as a voracious reader isn’t the worst thing), while Stevens — balancing the tricky nature of a mo-cap, CG-enhanced performance — brings the right bitter, yet still soulful feel to the Beast. Though it should be said that while no fault of Stevens, but rather some questionable wig and costume choices, the character is amusingly goofier looking as the long-haired prince than as the Beast… but some would say that the same goes in the animated version.
Also integral to this story, of course, are the staff in the Beast’s castle, who have all been transformed into household items by the curse. It’s impossible to imagine Disney’s Beauty and the Beast without Lumiere, Cogsworth or Mrs. Potts, and with top notch digital effects and the voices of excellent actors like Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan and Emma Thompson playing them, these characters vividly come to life, as do Madame de Garderobe (Audra McDonald), Chip (Nathan Mack), Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and the newly-created Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), a composer transformed into a harpsichord.
The cast also includes Kevin Kline, giving a sweet, sympathetic performance as Belle’s father, Maurice – and while it’s easy to be amused by a character with what is basically an American accent (Kline sounds like he is slightly tweaking his usual accent) being the father to a girl with a British accent, while both of them are supposed to be French, just remember folks, this is musical featuring a singing candelabra. It can survive the additional heightened reality of varied accents.
Last but not least are Luke Evans and Josh Gad as Gaston and LeFou, who in many ways are the scene stealers in Beauty and the Beast. Thanks to Book of Mormon and Frozen, Gad is a proven commodity when it comes to musical-comedy and gives a wonderfully energetic performance here. Evans in the meantime is a big surprise, showing off much more wit than his work in films like The Hobbit trilogy, Fast & Furious 6 or Dracula Untold hinted at.
There’s been a lot of press recently about the decision to make LeFou gay in this version, and give him an obvious crush on Gaston – though it should be noted it’s more of a small subplot/character thread, on par with Lumiere and Plumette being in love, than a major part of the film. It’s a tweak that blends well with the established material/character and beyond that, LeFou does have a more notable arc than in the animated version, where he was simply Gaston’s toady.
There are other expansions and alterations from the animated film here as well, including learning more about both Belle and the Beast’s parents and how it helped shape who these two kindred spirits are. While the story’s fantastical elements can never make it feel truly “realistic,” these touches certainly help to ground and flesh out the characters in some key areas.
As for the musical numbers, they are by and large great, with Condon proving to be an excellent choice to guide the film. The director’s eclectic career includes Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, a Candyman sequel and two Twilight sequels, but his work on two Academy Award-winning musicals, Chicago (which he wrote) and Dreamgirls (which he both wrote and directed), certainly serves him well here. The film is gorgeous to look at and the musical numbers are dynamic and involving, with many echoes of the animated film, but not feeling beholden to repeat every single bit of choreography. Small changes go beyond the visuals to the lyrics themselves, as purists should be warned there are some alternations from this songs you've sung along to for years, as this film makes use of a few lines written by the late Howard Ashman for the animated film that weren’t used at the time.
All the actors do solid to excellent work on the singing side. Watson, the one with the least musical theater background, isn’t likely to suddenly launch a second career as a pop singer, but still more than holds her own alongside Stevens, giving numbers like “Belle” and “Something There” plenty of emotion, as does Thompson with the title track. As for the crowd-pleasing “Be Our Guest,” any Moulin Rouge fan will love hearing McGregor belt out the tune and the number retains its inherent charm and fun – but it doesn’t quite hit the mark like it does in the animated version. It’s the one sequence where you feel the disconnect between Watson sitting there as a real person and all of the CG characters performing around her. The fact that they don't truly feel like they're occupying the same space stops it from completely gelling.
The showstopper instead is reserved for the aforementioned pairing of Evans and Gad, whose rousing rendition of the song “Gaston” thrills – and led to the biggest applause at the press screening I attended.
Unfortunately, the handful of new songs, written by Ashman’s collaborator Alan Menken alongside Tim Rice, are a bit on the lackluster side. While I did enjoy “”How Does a Moment Last Forever,” a short and poignant number performed by Kline, other new inclusions “Days in the Sun” and “Evermore” feel a bit uninspired and hard to recall after the fact.