Beauty and the Beast is a live-action adaptation of one of Disney’s most beloved and enchanting animations. So far, the reviews have been mostly favourable, but the general consensus seems to argue that Bill Condon and his team have played it a little too safe. While it’s true that much of this 2017 update is made up of recreations of the original’s charming aesthetic, Condon does manage to sneakily update the tale in small yet significant ways, with just enough flavour and gusto, to illuminate the world of Belle and her quaint little French village.
You can ignore the snarkiest of critics who are sure to dismiss this remake as an unwarranted and pointless cash-grab, but for true fans of the 1991 classic, the film is a spellbinding and visually illustrious reminder that beauty is only skin deep.
The story is unchanged from what we’ve seen 26 years previously, with the exception of some welcome new additions. A vain prince (Dan Stevens) scolds a haggish enchantress and is transformed into a monstrous beast as punishment. Across town, we meet the plucky and bookish Belle (Emma Watson), the brightest light in a small provincial town full of fools and idiots. She wants to explore the great wide somewhere, but Gaston (Luke Evans – a comically hilarious parody of hyper-masculinity) wants her for his bride. Shortly after, Belle’s father (Kevin Kline) gets lost in the woods and becomes imprisoned by the Beast. Belle tracks down her dad, confronts the Beast, and suddenly finds herself in an awkward Stockholm syndrome relationship, falling in love with her beastly captor.
We dismiss some of the gender politics of the original masterpiece as a product of its time, but here we see Condon and Watson ensuring that their iteration of Belle would steer clear of the doe-eyed, helpless damsel stereotype. Here she has agency throughout and a voice (and smile) that commands attention. Watson’s Belle is a modern woman. Independent, intelligent, book-smart and brave enough to confront all kinds of beasts both human and not.
Both Belle and the Beast are given small but meaningful backstories, which help to make their sudden romantic connection believable. They’re connected not only by their mutual isolation, but also through childhood tragedy. Maurice, usually the town idiot, is now a warm and doting father figure with a tortured past. But the most delightful new content comes in the form of the new songs by returning musical wizard Alan Menken and Tim Rice. The Beast’s new power ballad “Evermore” is evocative and mournful, and provides greater insight into the heart and fractured soul of the monster.
The music has always been recognised as one of Disney’s most masterful pieces of art. “Belle” is as fun-filled as ever with character and charm for days. The toe-tapping “Gaston” now includes a gleeful stomp/swashbuckling interlude. “Be Our Guest” pops with surrealistic imagery and dazzling colour. While the stirring and hugely underrated “Mob Song” made me fist pump with delight that it wasn’t trimmed from the final cut.
Stevens, who’s enjoying quite the momentous 2017 (see FX’s Legion) is largely hidden behind layers of not-always-convincing CGI, yet he still manages to communicate those irreplaceable acting quirks that make him such an enjoyable and engaging performer to watch. Despite some shaky rendering, he’s not a casualty to the motion capture process. His real pain-filled eyes are the ones that look longingly and lovingly at Belle; his saviour. His voice choked with genuine raw emotion and devastation. He is worthy of being saved.
The supporting cast are all top shelf talent as well. Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw are equally wonderful, while the controversy surrounding Disney’s first openly gay character, Josh Gad’s LeFou is ludicrous and archaic. The final showdown in the castle is a riot and it’s the work of these actors that make it so.
With Beauty and the Beast, Disney are now 3 from 3 in their efforts to transform their classic animated catalogue into a series of delightful live-action spectacles. Hardened movie goers may smell a company recycling nostalgia for cash, but there’s enough care and artistry at hand to endorse what Disney are doing here. The best stories are timeless and good enough to endure multiple retellings.
Backing up the film’s stunning and award-worthy production and costume design, is an enormous emotional pull. A longing for magic and fantasy. For love. For acceptance and connection.
There’s nothing wrong with absconding from the horrible news and headlines on our screens and social media feeds, and retreating to the warm embrace of some magical Disney escapism every now and then.