“Live-actionification” is not an actual word. It may soon become one, though, given the frenetic pace at which Disney are turning their animated classics into films featuring human actors. The Jungle Book, Dumbo, The Lion King… it seems only a matter of time before we get a photoreal The Rescuers Down Under. The ones released so far have made major bank. But even so, those charged with rebooting Beauty And The Beast must have felt a thrill of foreboding — akin to, say, the experience of approaching a cursed castle teeming with living crockery. Many have floundered trying to adapt the classic 1740 fairy tale upon which Disney based their animation, from the Fran Drescher-starring The Beautician And The Beast to the equally ropey recent French version, which paired Léa Seydoux and Vincent Cassel. Adding to the immense pressure was the passion felt by fans of the adored ’toon version. Had this gone wrong, the Magic Kingdom may well have been stormed by a pitchfork-wielding mob.
Happily, gone wrong it has not. Under the stewardship of Bill Condon, a director well-used to intense fans after his experiences making two Twilight films, the team behind this mega-money extravaganza rarely put a foot wrong. Following the blueprint laid out for it by its predecessor faithfully but not slavishly, it hits all the big notes, while adding a few new melodies of its own.
Emma Watson is an ideal Belle in this wonderful remake that’s at once nostalgic and new, bringing to life the musical both for kids and life-long adult fans. Her Belle is relatable and sympathetic, with her curious eyes and aura of clever bookishness and strong-willed personality (Watson was also Hermione Granger, after all!). It turns out Watson can sing well, too; she’s no rival to six-time Tony-winning co-star Audra McDonald, who plays Madame Garderobe, but her voice is clear and crisp and full of the longing and wanderlust that Belle conveys so beautifully in Alan Menken’s songs. Dan Stevens does a fine job with the Beast, playing up the character’s frustration, anger, underlying sadness — and eventual love — in his voice and gestures.
But we all know that Beauty and the Beast is just as much about the supporting characters as it is the central couple, and director Bill Condon’s ensemble doesn’t disappoint. Kline’s Maurice is even funnier than his bumbling animated counterpart, and McGregor and McKellen are hilarious as odd-couple duo Lumiere and Cogsworth. Thompson is comforting as Mrs. Potts, and her boy Chip is ever as lovable. And then there’s Evans as narcissistic Gaston, who’s so full of himself that he can’t fathom why Belle won’t agree to be his bride, and the amazing Josh Gad, who steals the show as Gaston’s adoring (and smitten) sidekick LeFou. Menken’s original songs are rendered with appropriate spectacle, particularly “Be Our Guest,” but the new ones are decidedly bittersweet, underscoring the sadness both Belle and Beast feel about their situations. The gorgeous costumes and extraordinary set design add to the movie’s overall delight, but it’s the performances that stand out in this memorable musical remake.
Condon’s film is sumptuous, coated in detail, and made with real affection for the Disney original (willing, too, to dip into earlier tellings of the story). The opening prologue, for instance, introduces us to a castle and ball sequence that rivals Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. The small differences start to become apparent earlier, too. We spend, for instance, some time with the young prince in Dan Stevens guise before his transformation into the Beast of the title. The wording of that prologue has altered, and been slightly modernised, and when we get to the opening Belle number, little changes and accommodations have been made to ground things in a little more live action reality. This trend continues. Gaston no longer eats five dozen eggs, the Beast is far more educated, Maurice is no longer a “wacky old coot”, digs about his mental health utterly toned down.
These changes have narrative impacts too. Things generally slot into the same places they did in the story we already know, but the route they take to get there is often notably different. Devotees of the earlier movie will inevitably indulge in a little bit of ringing the changes. After all, it’s impossible not to end up comparing it to the animated film, not least because this new version firmly ties itself firmly to it. Key songs, the musical score, and the look of the characters, are heavily dependant on the pathfinding that’s been done before.
Yet there are distinctions of merit. Some of the performances, in particular, are a treat. Josh Gad, for one, has enormous fun with the sidekick character LeFou, adding some killer lines and a devotion to Gaston that’s far more fleshed out. Gaston and LeFou are far more of a double act, and Evans too is excellent value here. In fact, the supporting cast have a ball. Ian McKellen’s take on Cogsworth is a treat, Emma Thompson is the singing teapot you never knew you wanted and whilst Ewan McGregor’s French accent may stretch things a little as Lumiere, he’s hard to resist.
A full on, lavish, theatrical musical, a tale as old as time, an unnecessary remake, a little too long, and made with clear love? Guilty on all counts. You might just learn to love a Beast again, too…