These live-action reimaginings keep on coming. Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella and The Jungle Book all banked hefty returns, so it’s unsurprising Disney would want to keep plundering its animated back-catalogue for more box office gold. But those tasked with adapting Beauty and the Beast must have felt a sense of foreboding. After all, it’s one thing to remake a cartoon released before the Second World War, and another entirely to update a Best Picture-nominee for which many parents will still hold fond memories. One misstep and the filmmakers can expect an angry mob barging down their doors.
Happily, fans of the original will have no need for pitchforks or flaming torches. In the very capable hands of director Bill Condon (the man who brought us Oscar-winning musicals Dreamgirls and Chicago), Beauty and the Beast is a lavish, exquisitely detailed, sweepingly whimsical adventure that honours its source material without being slavish to its vaunted reputation.
Unlike Snow White and the Huntsman, which foolishly retooled its classic tale to feature more swords and moody glances, Condon leaves the plot largely untouched. After her father (Kevin Kline) is captured for stealing a rose, ambitious bookworm Belle (Emma Watson) agrees to take his place as a prisoner in an enchanted castle where she meets, and gradually falls in love with the Beast (Dan Stevens), a vain prince cursed with eternal bad-looks after refusing hospitality to a sorceress.
The success of this entire endeavour rests on the casting of the two leads, and Condon nails his choices. Watson is sweetly beguiling as Belle, bursting onto the scene to challenge her provincial town’s backward way of thinking during the movie’s opening number. Naturally, her character’s been given a feminist update, gaining a desire to teach young girls to read – much to the chagrin of the town elders – and a knack for invention that serves her well as she tries to escape the castle. Let’s not get too excited though – she still falls way short of Frozen’s Anna and Elsa. For all her talk of not being a princess, Belle’s problems are still largely solved by her choice of male suitor and wearing pretty dresses. Thankfully, there’s just enough steel in Watson’s gutsy performance to make it work.
As for the Beast, Stevens is possibly even more impressive. Stomping around the grounds of his decaying home with giant horns and a reverberating growl, Stevens is effortlessly convincing as a ferocious monster. What’s even better is that Stevens never looses sight of the wounded, soulful man hidden beneath the fuzz, which helps to make his gradual softening that much more believable. The CGI used to transform him into a hirsute monster might not always live up to expectations, but Stevens is superb throughout.
It’s the supporting cast who get to have the most fun, though. Luke Evans throws everything into his performance as agonisingly vain war hero Gaston, Peacock-strutting around the screen with his chest puffed out, pausing only to wink at his reflection in every available surface; meanwhile, a stellar voice cast are having a ball as the castle’s anthropomorphised crockery. There’s Ewan McGregor’s garrulous candelabra Lumiere, Ian McKellan’s crotchety clock Cogsworth, Emma Thompson’s mumsy teapot Mrs Potts and Nathan Mack’s plucky teacup Chip, along with the new addition of Stanley Tucci’s harpsichord Maestro Cadenza.
Their enthusiastically camp performances lend themselves perfectly to the bombastic Broadway tone of the piece. The sets are ornately designed and intricately detailed, yet they retain a stagey feel that creates a fresh theatrical energy to the film’s big musical numbers. The ballroom scene always has its charms but the standout sequence by far is the Be My Guest dinner set-piece, which plays like a trippy throwback to Golden Age musicals with its broad scope and whimsical invention. An extended runtime also allows for the addition of a couple of new numbers which will stick in your ear just as much as the originals – high praise indeed considering the near universal praise Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s 1991 score received.
If there is a blunder to be found, it’s in Josh Gad’s misguided portrayal of Gaston’s loyal ego-booster, Le Fou. You might recall Condon made a rather large song and dance about the character having a “gay moment” in the film, which caused a hate storm big enough to see the film banned in Russia. Yet, it turns out to be a lot of fuss about nothing. Gad’s Le Fou is played as a creepy, clingy acolyte who briefly dances with a man. If that’s truly intended to be a representation of the gay community, it’s mildly offensive, and raises the question of why Condon bothered drawing attention to the performance at all.
Still, those who feared this new take wouldn’t come close to the animated original will be pleasantly surprised. Condon has enlivened this age-old tale with gusto and flair, crafting a lavish, enchanting, unashamedly heart-warming musical that will please new fans and old sceptics alike.
Runtime: 129 mins; Genre: Musical; Released: 17 March 2017;
Director: Bill Condon; Screenwriters: Steven Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos;
Stars: Dan Stevens, Emma Watson, Luke Evans, Josh Gad