As evidenced by the box-office success of Disney’s previous live-action remakes of well-known properties ($1 billion maker Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella and Maleficent to date), greenlighting Beauty and the Beast was a no-brainer. Disney has taken one of its most critically acclaimed movies—it was the first full-length animated feature to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture—and recreated it in live action, an attribute that sets this latest feature apart from the previously mentioned films.
With the classic, contagious opening number, “Belle,” director Bill Condon (an Oscar winner for his Gods and Monsters screenplay) and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Rent) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (a veteran of Disney’s direct-to-video oeuvre) have pulled off one of the year’s greatest cinematic tricks: They took the crown jewel from Disney’s renaissance and remade it as a spectacular modern musical. Though it is nigh impossible to separate the two versions, were this Beauty and the Beast the only one available, it would still be considered a film event harkening back to the heyday of the Hollywood musical.
The bulk of the film is a nearly exact replica of the 1991 animated masterpiece. Belle (Emma Watson) saves her father by volunteering to be held prisoner by the frightening Beast (Dan Stevens), who happens to be a cursed prince. Honestly, imprisonment in the Beast’s castle seems better than internment in Belle’s hometown village, where she is relentlessly pursued by the boorish Gaston (Luke Evans). At least in the Beast’s castle, she gets magical, cruise-ship-level dinner entertainment conjured by anthropomorphic candlestick Lumiere (v. Ewan McGregor) and his compatriots Cogsworth (v. Ian McKellan), Mrs. Potts (v. Emma Thompson) and her son, Chip (v. Nathan Mack). Eventually, she even falls in love with Beast.
This remake works smashingly, with one lone exception. Poor Watson is sweet and charming, but never wholly inhabits Belle. (Whether anyone could flawlessly bring a great Disney heroine to life is still up in the air; best of luck to whatever actress gets cast as The Little Mermaid’s Ariel). The rest of the live-action cast is luckier. Evans only has to live up to Gaston’s buffoonish standards, and Josh Gad will amuse all but his most ardent detractors. Everyone else besides Kevin Kline gets off lucky, as they are essentially animated. Beauty and the Beast is the first sign Disney might aspire to recreate its pictures to be something more than simple blockbusters.
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