It’s a tale as old as time, but Beauty and the Beast never ceases to give me the warm fuzzies – even if it is just Disney converting another of its beloved animated titles into a live-action cash grab. I love most Disney classics, but Beauty is my all-time favourite. What’s not to love about Belle? She’s French, loves books, has a kick-ass library (jealous much?) is an inventor, and she wants much more out of life than her little village can offer. Outspoken activist Emma Watson is the perfect casting choice to transform Belle into a modern, girl-power heroine. Brainy? Yes. But she’s the total package. Her smile is infectious, and can she even rock a golden taffeta frock.
Disney’s story might be rooted in the past, but in adapting the 1991 double Oscar-winner, director Bill Condon adds some progressive updates to make the new film live and breathe on its own. Neither Condon nor Watson ever let the fearless and independent Belle become a helpless damsel. Even when she’s a prisoner in the Beast’s castle, Belle still has a voice. She’s fierce.
That gravitas extends to a stellar cast that includes Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens as the new (slightly underwhelming) Beast, Luke Evans as Belle’s arrogant suitor Gaston, with Josh Gad is his admiring (wink, wink) pal LeFou, and Kevin Kline as Belle’s doting dad Maurice. The supporting bric-a-brac and baubles are played by Ewan McGregor (Lumière), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Nathan Mack (Chip), Audra McDonald (Madame Garderobe), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (the seductive Plumette) and Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza).
For the uninitiated, Beauty and the Beast tells the story of two outcasts whose love has the power to reverse a curse. The brooding Beast was once a prince until an ill-tempered witch (Haydn Gwynne) transformed him. So selfish, rude and unkind is the prince that all of his servants must also pay the price for his arrogance and are thus turned into talking teapots, clocks and candlesticks. But they’ll all return to human form if the hideous Beast and beautiful Belle can find true love – before time runs out and the last rose petal drops. The story may be lacking in intellectual depth and emotional complexity, but there’s a clear narrative and enough amusing gimmicks to beguile even the most jaded.
Condon (Gods and Monsters), working from a script by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War), directs with flair, especially with the crowd-pleasing tunes and the jubilant grand finale that will make you want to dance in the cinema aisle. All the original songs are there, and Alan Menken penned three more for the update. But none are as catchy as the Oscar-winning title song that’s still stuck in my head more than 24 hours after seeing the film.
McGregor, Thompson, Mbatha-Raw and McKellen are a hoot on “Be Our Guest”, a colourful toe-tapping number with confetti and fireworks and sparkle. Watson and Evans hold their own on “Belle” and “Gaston.” You can’t help but smile. Stevens sings the sorrowful new ballad, “For Evermore”, after Belle leaves the castle, but it’s less soaring than intended.
Once the push-pull between Belle and the Beast ebbs, the two find common ground – they both love to read – and good things start to happen. In the end, love trumps hate. Good manners matter. Beauty is only skin deep. Those are timeworn lessons that never get old, especially when wrapped in this much wonder and fantasy.
This is unapologetically a “Disney” film, and while that might be off-putting for those hankering for original and surprising cinema, it’s fascinating that the studio has developed this unique imprint for themselves. It’s become a byword for a certain type of robust high quality. One thing you can say about their productions is that they seldom look cheap. They leave you with the impression that, whatever creative decisions have been made, they are executed in the most effective way possible.
Sometimes it’s the decisions themselves that are questionable, but the reaction of watching a film like Beauty and the Beast is that it never allows the viewer to question, or even think about, the value of its technical credentials. It’s a film that is entirely comfortable in its own body, which is both pleasing and fitting.