Cinematic remakes and adaptations always have an uphill battle. Filmmakers are always eager to put their personal touches on the material, but reluctant to inject too many changes that would divert from the original and cause uproar among a built-in fanbase, while flying too safe can make the effort pointless. Such is the challenge for director Bill Condon and Disney’s latest version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.
Belle (Emma Watson), is held prisoner by Beast (Dan Stevens), who was once a handsome prince before being transformed by an enchantress, along with his household staff who now inhabit the forms of candlesticks, clocks, teacups, wardrobes, and pianos (voiced by Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Audra McDonald, and Stanley Tucci). Beast must learn the meaning of true love before the last petal of an enchanted rose falls, while Belle’s father Maurice (Kevin Kline) and Gaston (Luke Evans), her possible suitor, seek to rescue her.
This version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is very much a faithful live-action version of Disney’s own 1991 animated film. Showing no shame, director Bill Condon and his team of writers passionately recreate nearly every familiar character, stitch, beat, and moment from that version, and the boundaries they are required to play in seem clear. But room to play is given; both Belle and Beast are given expanded backstories which venture into some dark and tragic territory, and they serve both characters well and makes their eventual connection more palpable. The story is all about this unlikely couple, and the work done to give them identities and meaning is there.
But what makes this version of the story stand out is the commitment to being a full-blown movie musical. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is presented like a big Broadway musical with its lavish and lush settings and characters belting their hearts out into the cheap-seats. The musical numbers are dazzling with exploding colors and wonderful choreography, and even the slower numbers have their own power. It’s a musical even more so than the 1991 version, and that gives the film its own identity. Old and familiar numbers are re-done and given new life, and new songs are put in which gives key characters more depth. The classic Be Our Guest is the showstopper; it’s a rousing number which goes on forever but is a lot of fun.
The film is a visual treat. Every set from Belle’s quaint village to the massive castle is stunning, and the design work to give the talking household objects their own personalities is very well done and makes what could have been ridiculous seem very real. The camera seems to love those talking objects a little too much, as they seem to eat up more screentime than they deserve when more time should have been given to the courtship of Belle and Beast. Beast is brought to life on-screen by a combination of a big body-suit and a CGI digital mask. For the most part it’s effective, and the eyes of Dan Stevens are always pushing sadness or rage, but the overall face of Beast comes across as very stiff and needed a lot more facial expression.
With such a commitment to being a musical, the film winds up with an emphasis on performances, and the cast is more-than up to the task. Emma Watson sings lovely and her acting against characters that aren’t really there on set is spot-on; she’s a charmer from the first few seconds we see her. Dan Stevens is magnificent as Beast and his singing is outstanding. Luke Evans nearly steals the show as a brutish hunter who wants Belle for his own, and Josh Gad turns in a hilarious performance as Gaston’s sidekick. The voiceover cast are all perfect in their roles, and Kevin Kline is excellent as always.
Despite flying very close to the 1991 animated version, this BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is very much its own film, as its deeper look at characters and embracing the old movie musical gives it a cinematic quality that an 80-minute cartoon can’t quite match. It’s drenched in nostalgia, but feels fresh and new. Be its guest.
BOTTOM LINE: See it