FILM REVIEW – BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. With Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad. Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. Directed by Bill Condon. Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images. 129 minutes.
Several years ago, the suits at Disney all but admitted they had run out of ideas and started turning to the rides at theme parks for inspiration. While “Pirates of the Caribbean” was a hit, other attempts like “The Country Bears” and “The Haunted Mansion” were quickly forgotten. So they turned to their library of animated classics and announced they would be doing live action versions of them. Why? Because they could.
The arrivals of “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book” were greeted with skepticism… until they were actually seen. While one can debate the necessity of such remakes, there was no doubt these were well-mounted productions, and not at all cheap knock-offs. Which brings us to the much-anticipated remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. The 1991 animated film was actually nominated for a Oscar for Best Picture (leading to the creation of a separate category for animated features).
The good news is that they got it right. There’s a new song or two, some little changes here and there (most notably in the character of LeFou, played by Josh Gad), but director Bill Condon and his team have harnessed what was so magical about the earlier film and made it work here. A veteran director who knows his way around musicals having made “Dreamgirls” and written the screeplay adaptation for “Chicago,” he shows how it ought to be done.
Watch Belle (a radiant Emma Watson) singing about the “provincial life” in her village as the various townspeople move around her, and the contrived traffic jam that opened “La La Land” seems artificial and clumsy. In terms of production numbers the acid test here was going to be “Be Our Guest” as Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) leads an entire kitchen’s worth of food, china, and cutlery in welcoming Belle to dinner. It shows how far CGI effects have come that such a thing can be done, flawlessly mixing actors, computer animation, and physical sets into a seamless whole.
For those coming in late, the story remains intact. Belle and her father (Kevin Kline) are the eccentrics in the village, where the obnoxious Gaston (Luke Evans) believes Belle is the woman to be his wife. Meanwhile the Beast (Dan Stevens) is under a curse that can only be broken by someone loving him. His castleful of servants have been transformed into animate objects like Lumiere, who is a candelabra, Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), a clock, and the teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson). Belle sacrifices herself to free her father, who has been taken by the Beast, but over time comes to see the human beneath the monstrous exterior, even as it becomes obvious that the real beast is the horrible Gaston. (One of the changes in the film is that Gaston’s sidekick LeFou is allowed to redeem himself.)
The story hits all the expected beats, but because Disney didn’t treat it like one of their home video “sequels” but brought in top talent to bring it to life, it is pure magic. The reinterpretations of the non-human characters is inventive while Watson is perfect as Belle, alternately dreamy and strong-willed, just the character to break through the Beast’s tough hide and find the human heart beating inside. For fans, it will be a subject of endless debate as to which version is “better,” but that’s strictly a matter of personal taste and preference.
“Beauty and the Beast” is the best movie musical in years, and one that deserves to be seen on the big screen.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.