In these environmentalist times it’s nice to see that the rich types over at Disney are interested in recycling. At the moment instead of polluting us with new movies they’re in remake mode, turning their animated classics into slick live action films, with varying results. They range from the excellent (The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians), to the average (Cinderella, Pete’s Dragon) to the awful (Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent). It’s lucky then, that Disney’s latest enduring 90s touchstone is firmly in the good category – Tim Burton better up his game for Dumbo.
Directed by Bill Condon, himself a man of varying quality, Beauty and the Beast sticks pretty close to the original tale. Bookish outsider Belle (Emma Watson) trades her freedom for her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) when he runs afoul of an angry cursed Prince (Dan Stevens), but perhaps there’s more to him than meets the eye.
While The Jungle Book and Cinderella did away with the songs, Beauty and the Beast clearly loves the original songs and some of the Broadway ones too and has no shame about doing an old fashioned show stopping musical. It opens big, and gets bigger as it goes on, which for a live action version of an animated classic is no bad thing. Condon doesn’t do much to tweak the songs or the original score, leaving the work done by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman as it is. Interestingly enough, the choice not to bring some of the tunes from the Broadway adaptation is an odd one, as some of those would have worked perfectly, including ‘Human Again’, which was brought into the DVD re-release of the classic.
Instead, Menken has written and composed some new songs for the film that not only work as songs but add to the originals, unlike say, Les Miserables’ ‘Suddenly’. Beauty’s ‘How Does a Moment Last Forever’ becomes a two-part song that brings resonance to the relationship between Belle and her father, and ‘Days in the Sun’ shows the emotional cost to the house staff. But it’s the Beast’s solo ‘Evermore’ that is absolutely the stand out new addition, not just a beautiful song but a perfect summary of his love.
The songs are of course performed by the actors, and with a near unnerved grin of enjoyment, everyone here is a good if not great singer, unlike other musicals which insist on one awful singer. All this makes it easy to see why this has raked in cash, the whole cast are brilliant, mixing camp and passionate. In Belle, Emma Watson is confident and innocent, channeling her public persona and her legacy as Hermoine into a confident, strong willed character, even if the whole Stockholm plot is properly modernised. Dan Stevens is better in Beast mode than in Prince mode, and at times the choice to bring his voice down means he sounds like Hugh Laurie. Gaston, as portrayed by Luke Evans is a vicious, egotistical villain who is big voiced and very enjoyable.
As for the supporting players there’s not a foot put wrong, Kevin Kline is as good as he has ever been as Maurice, played as a more loving, guilt-ridden figure with none of the over the top bumbling of his animated counter-part, as good as him is Josh Gad’s LeFou about whom the controversies of his sexuality are unnecessary, and frankly more LGBT characters? That’s a good thing. The household items, both voiced and played in live action by everyone later on are great. Audra MacDonald as opera singer-turned wardrobe Madame de Garderobe brings some of the big animated joy to her performance. While Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette) and Nathan Mack (Chip) all have little but enjoyable roles, as does Ray Fearon, who plays the village’s chaplain who nurtures the intelligence of Belle.
More big draws casting-wise see Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson as fan favourites Lumiere, Cogsworth and Mrs Potts, all of whom are given depth and a chance to show off their comic chops. The three of them perform their songs, and their lines with so much affection that at times it’s sad they’re not in the film more.
The film’s other big draw is the hidden depth, and it’s decision to explain away some of the questions and plot holes in the original film. Now we understand the Enchantress, and why The Beast became the way he was, and similarly the origins of both Belle and Chip are explained both simply and effectively; Gaston’s brutish nature is explained as a former soldier living off his past glories with a simmering temper and perchant for violence.
One sequence, set in a windmill, is effective with just one prop and two words, which offer the audience a view of inner turmoil for Maurice, Belle and the Beast. It’s so effective that one image is both heartbreaking and very scary. While the opening number, ‘Belle’, as well as ‘Be Our Guest’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ are show stopping feel good tunes, even if the title song can’t outdo the original.
If there are problems then it comes from some of the more over the top moments; the wardrobe dressing scenes go a bit too far in their OTT-ness and take you out of the scenes, and the CGI wolves do call back to the frankly wobbly moments in Condon’s Breaking Dawn films. There is also a very disappointing end to Gaston that is actually less upsetting than the animated version. After all the awful acts Gaston does in the film, his demise should have been grimmer.
But those are minor issues, given than the film’s cinematography is gorgeous, with swirling cameras and interesting edits that transition between scenes. The choice of more depth is inspired with the screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, it has some truly big laughs in the dialogue and one moment of physical comedy that seems like a call back to a famous choke in Dumb and Dumber (two words: snow ball). The costume design is also gorgeous; each character has little flourishes to their costumes that portray their standing and personality.
There’s also reason to be happy in the decision to include more people of colour: Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Lumiere’s lover Plumette, and Stanley Tucci’s Cadenza being married to Audra MacDonald’s Garderobe show the film’s pro-interracial slant, and the chaplain being black also shows that just because it’s the past doesn’t mean it has to be an all white cast (so what’s your excuse now, Middle Earth?)
Then we have the controversy around LeFou being gay, which is frankly, ridiculous. Yes, it’s implied three times he’s in love with Gaston (once to great comic effect), and yes at the end he ends up with another man, but it’s not like things become the tent scene from Brokeback Mountain, it’s more subtext than anything else, and really is pales in comparison to the darker elements of the story (you know, Gaston leaving Maurice to be devoured by wolves, talking of bedding war widows, his blood lust, straight up shooting someone point blank).
For those who enjoyed previous Disney remakes, this is a dream come true, and includes all the wonderful music many people grew up on, but it also brings some darkness, some of the Grim Fairytale nature that always underpins fairy stories. It’s a great time at the movies, giving you your money’s worth of songs, excitement, and big drama. Forget La La Land, this is the musical of the year. After The Jungle Book and now this, The Lion King has big promise, and it’s probably time for Disney to start moving forwards with The Little Mermaid and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as it’s money waiting to be claimed.