Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Disney’s animated classic Beauty and the Beast is such a wonderful experience, so much so that I think I’ve figured out once and for all why remakes have existed pretty much as long as movies have. It has nothing to do with running out of story ideas, despite what the small-minded cynics have been saying for decades; it works in much the same way as repeatedly telling the same bedtime story to children, the demand being so great because they know a good story when they hear one and long for its familiarity. For me, and for the audience I sat with, watching this movie was as reassuring and comforting as curling up with a soft blanket on a cold night.
Everything about the 1991 film, among one of Disney’s best animated achievements, has been retained – the romance, the excitement, the fun, the humor, the poignancy, the music, the visual splendor. In some ways, it has gone beyond the animated film. It has been presented, first and foremost, in IMAX 3D, the only surefire method of actually immersing an audience in a cinematic world. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice have added wonderful new songs, the best a soaring, heartfelt solo reserved for the Beast. Belle’s passion for reading has been subtlety yet noticeably broadened from mere escapism to advocacy for girls’ education. The transformation of LeFou into a gay character has been much reported, which is disheartening when you realize that this is 2017 and such things should no longer warrant reporting.
The back stories of the title characters, played respectively by Emma Watson and a digitally and prosthetically augmented Dan Stevens, have been somewhat fleshed out, Belle having lost her mother to the plague in Paris, the Beast a prince who also lost his mother and was molded into a spoiled, selfish brat by his uncaring father. Belle’s father Maurice, played by Kevin Kline, has been changed from a wacky inventor to an artist of paintings, sketches, and intricate mechanical knick knacks. His demeanor has also been changed from enthusiastic and jovial to somber and resigned, the pain of having to leave behind his beloved wife playing into an overprotectiveness of his daughter, who has hesitantly settled into a simple life in an equally simple provincial village.
But enough about the differences. Let’s focus on the similarities. There’s no need to describe the plot in detail – we all know it by now, if not from the animated film then surely from the long-running, Tony-nominated stage musical adaptation – although I’d be delighted to talk about the characters, not only because we’ve come to know and love them but also because many of them are brought to life via computer-generated imagery and look absolutely incredible. These would be the servants of the Beast’s castle, who were cursed right along with their master into becoming household objects: The Chevalier-esque candelabra Lumiere (voiced by Ewan McGregor); the stodgy clock Cogsworth (voiced by Ian McKellen); and the motherly teapot Mrs. Potts (voiced by Emma Thompson) and her chipped teacup son Chip (voiced by Nathan Mack). New characters include a soprano-voiced wardrobe (voiced by Audra McDonald), her harpsichord husband (voiced by Stanley Tucci), and the object of Lumiere’s affection, an avian feather duster (voiced by Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
We can’t forget the other characters, Belle first and foremost. Although she most assuredly sees the literal and figurative humanity beneath the Beast’s monstrous exterior and falls in love with him, she isn’t a demure damsel-in-distress typecast longing for the promise of a prince’s kiss, nor was she in the animated film. And then there’s the local army hero Gaston, who doesn’t pine for Belle’s affection so much as demands it of her; he’s played by Luke Evans, and while he may lack the exaggerated brawny physique of his animated counterpart, he perfectly captures his chauvinism, egomania, and cruelty. Feeding into Gaston’s delusions of grandeur is his comic-relief right-hand man LeFou (Josh Gad) – in part, it cannot be denied, because of his crush on Gaston, which he must know deep down is not only unrequited but entirely unnoticed.
As with any musical film, there’s always concern going in about the singing voices of the actors, especially in regards to songs audiences know by heart. Going into Beauty and the Beast, I was aware and confident of the talents of Ewan McGregor, Audra McDonald, and Josh Gad, but I had no idea what to expect of everyone else. Within the first ten minutes, all my concerns were put to rest; Emma Watson conveys emotion without overreaching, Luke Evans would fit right in on a Broadway stage if he hasn’t already tried to do so, and Emma Thompson’s take on the title song is wonderfully on par with Angela Lansbury’s original animated rendition.
My God, but the film looks beautiful. Between Tobias Schliessler’s cinematography, Sarah Greenwood’s production designs, and Jacqueline Durran’s costume designs, we’re not only thoroughly immersed in a fantasy world, we actually believe it. And the special effects are top of the line; I was worried their persistent use throughout would diminish the magical effect of the “Be Our Guest” number, but they don’t; if anything, the song is just as much of a splendid acrobatic showstopper as it was in 1991, aided in no small part by Lumiere’s theatricality. The bottom line is that Beauty and the Beast was a terrific and touching reminder, if ever I needed one, of why I go to the movies. It isn’t traditional to say you’ve seen one of the year’s best films in March, but in this case, to hell with tradition.