Don’t mess with a good thing, so croons an age old adage and Beauty and the Beast, the most recent live action Disney remake, is exemplary of that statement. A near-perfect update of the beloved animated Disney classic, this live-action contemporary version is in many ways a literal note for note transfer, with everything from story beats to musical runs to the lavish costumes tracing 1991’s hand drawn offerings but despite its reciprocal, borderline redundant nature, Bill Condon’s product feels sumptuously loved nonetheless.
Those looking to be swept off their feet in a tidal wave of familiar feels should feel comforted by Beauty and the Beast’s cozying recognizability. Similarly, those hoping for a whole new belle of the ball will find themselves in an overly familiar two-step, waltzing down memory lane. Going in expecting more than a modern day facelift may leave some viewers minorly disappointed with how faithful the adaptation proves but with a measured sprinkling of new scenes, new songs and character tweaks, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast mixes just the right pinch of freshness in with its unblinking devotion to source material.
Following the commercial and critical success of Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Jungle Book and, to a lesser extent, Pete’s Dragon, Beauty and the Beast is Disney’s latest attempt to weaponize nostalgia to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. In my particular case, this method proved far from madness, capitalizing on my once obsession with this merry gothic fairy tale.
As a wee one, Beauty and the Beast was my professed favorite of the Disney collection. My earliest memories have me clomping around the house, belting out approximations of Gaston’s “Kill the Beast”, brandishing whatever I could as weapons. Embarrassingly cute home videos and a virtually worn down VHS tape can attest to just how much the romance between a captive bookwork and her faux-bison beau meant to a young Matt and if this remake is designed for anyone, I would wager that it’s aimed at me (and my wallet) just as much as it is the incoming class of wide-eyed youngsters. Meaning, this will play to audiences new to the story and those well-versed in its saga equally. Well played Disney, well played.
I’ll tee up the plot for you, faithful readers, even though I’m confident you already know what transpires: a judgy prince (Dan Stevens) gets a prickly sentence when he shoots down a hag-turned-enchantress (Hattie Moragan). Later, resident smartypants Belle (Emma Watson) trades her life for her father’s (Kevin Klein), becoming a hostage of the now-hideous Beast. Before long, Stockholm Syndrome sets in and the bookish beauty is smitten with her feral jailor. One failed assassination attempt later, all was happily ever after.
True love defies surface-level superficialities, the family friendly love story ironically professes, even when defining its titular heroine by his physical attractiveness. You can make cracks about not judging a book by its cover (cuz Belle reads a lot, gettit?) but this adaptation at least attempts to account for some of the funkier gender politics native to the original animated version. In addressing some of the existing concerns, screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos attempt to put Belle and Beast on more of an even intellectual playing field, allowing their mutual love for books and knowledge to become a shared interest that helps fasten their bond
Rather than Belle fawning for a boorish brute who does little outside of flashing some flippant warm attention her way, who charms her with his spellbinding material wealth (that library tho…), their union here is one of the minds. Emma Watson’s headstrong portrayal of Belle, a feminist’s take on a feminist character, helps sell her resistance to domineering men and makes the case for her eventual fondness for Beast. In parallel, her feminist instincts are best characterized with her relationship to Luke Evan’s commanding Gaston.
He’s a hunter foremost, Gaston, the thrill of the hunt the real reason for his unwavering pursuit of Belle, and Evans plays him with delicious smarm. A guy who professes to eating 60 eggs a day (can you imagine his cholesterol?), Gaston is a provincial hunk whose ego needs constant coddling – the literal antithesis of what a adventure-seeking, non-homemaker like Belle craves – and Evans is jolly good fun at reinventing a character whose a genuine blast to root against. From his inky ponytail on down, Evans embodies the full-bodied gasconade of Disney’s favorite narcissist and his over-compensating manliness proves more entertaining than ever. Speaking of…
Enter LeFou, the controversially updated sidekick. Josh Gad’s homosexual take on the goofy minion is a standout; an inspired exploration of gay tendencies within the confines of Disney. His take is at once silly and ponderous, exploring the internal turmoil of a friend whose admiration extends beyond platonic feelings. LeFou benefits greatly from the depth added to the character, becoming an unpredictable agent in his own right. Gaston, who must suspect LeFou, keeps his fawning crony around because he can’t do without the constant ego milking and the tension created between the two – the tug and pull of the “will they or won’t they” – is one of the juiciest additions to the formula.
Amongst the other narrative extensions, reinventions and annexations is a soulful new wrinkle to the relationship shared between Belle and her father Maurice (formerly an inventor, now an artist) and a powerful song about letting go of the ones you love that, moreso than anything else, threatened to reduce my stiffish upper lip to a quivering slush of feelings. Be warned adult audience members, it’s those you don’t see coming that might knock you from your emotional high horse.
The cast is rounded out with a sculpted collection of seasoned veterans with Emma Thompson, probably the most British woman alive playing an anthropomorphic pot of tea, Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald as Maestro Cadenza and Madame Garderobe respectively, the gorgeous Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the flirtatious duster Plumette and a glib Ewan McGregor smartly paired against an ailing Ian McKellen as fan favorites Lumiere and Cogworth. From top to bottom, the performances hit their marks, be they speaking, singing – owning familiar songs and introducing newly minted ones both – or overall just giving life to computer-created beings.
Beneath the CGI sheen, Stevens’ Beast is more than a digital creation. The chemistry between him and Watson, both of whom are truly excellent, is palpable, marking further development in the continuing accomplishments of motion capture technology. No matter how flawless the VFX, it’s the message beneath that shines, for instance when our hero shucks off his labeling as a “Beast”, championing that it is inside that count most. Nonetheless, the technological feats don’t end there as every square inch of Beauty and the Beast’s sumptuous production design is a visual smörgåsbord lavishly rendered to eye-popping effect. From towering castles to humble villages, digitally conceived wolves to bedazzled costumery, Beauty and the Beast is arresting spectacle fastened to emotionally punchy storytelling that’s sure to sweep you off your feet. Now go on and be their guest already.
CONCLUSION: A virtual clone of the 1991 animated feature, with a few added scenes and songs that strengthen rather than detract, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a resplendent display of stylish big budget filmmaking. Brimming with earnestness and heart, Disney’s latest live action adaptation boasts a knock-out cast (Watson, Stevens, Gad and Evans are spectacular) making this enchanting remake a wonderful tale as old as time with some splashy updates.