Re-making a beloved classic film always invites comparisons. Director Bill Condon was fully aware of this when Disney approached him to make a live-action version of their 1991 “Beauty and the Beast.” Condon had to overcome his own hesitation since he considers (rightly) the 1991 animated version “the perfect movie.”
Condon was not alone in that perception. Disney’s 1991 “Beauty and the Beast” was the first animated feature ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The movie won the Oscar for Best Song and Best Score. Such honors place the bar very high for this new re-make which comes close to, but doesn’t quite hit, the original’s mark.
The plot by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos follows the same storyline featured in Linda Woolverton’s 1991 script. New additions include the childhood backstories of Belle (Emma Watson) and the Beast (Dan Stevens); a magic book that allows travel; and some added songs and lyrics. With the exception of the Beast’s stunning “Evermore” (sung by Stevens using the “Beast filter voice” during the film and by Josh Groban over the end credits), these new elements are fine but mainly serve to extend the film’s running time to over two hours.
Romantic leads Watson and Stevens convincingly present conflict which turns into love. When Watson’s Belle encounters villainous Gaston (Luke Evans), she occasionally gives a grimace that will remind audiences of Watson’s long-standing role as Hermione in the “Harry Potter” film series. Fortunately, those looks aren’t frequent.
Director Condon told the LA Times he wanted to make this Belle an “activist.” While that sounds timely given the current political and social climate, it plays out as a bit of an overstatement. Other than a brief scene where Belle attempts to teach a little girl to read, angering the villagers, she mainly interacts only with male villagers. And, disappointingly, she does not verbally defend a beggar woman whom Gaston ridicules.
Kevin Kline brings a new tone to the role of Belle’s father, Maurice. He’s an inventor but not a bumbling, befuddled one. Introduced with the song “How Does a Moment Last Forever (Music Box),” it is easy to see how Kline’s Maurice has imparted the value of love to his daughter.
Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou provide two strong performances. In addition to his excellent singing voice, Evans hits all the dramatic marks as the egocentric, dishonest, macho bully. Gad brings great comic timing to LeFou, delivering some of the wittiest lines in this script.
The announcement LeFou would be depicted as Disney’s first “openly gay” character caused controversy in some markets. LeFou has always hero worshipped Gaston. But here, in a nice turn, LeFou begins to question Gaston’s actions. The reveal of LeFou’s sexuality (a shot of LeFou and another male villager dancing together) is so brief that it drew only amused giggles from the audience.
As for this “Beauty and the Beast” being live-action rather than animated, is it really? Actually, it’s a mix of live-action and computer generated images (CGI). Portions of the sets, backgrounds, and the enchanted servants have been rendered in CGI. The design detail is impressive for both Lumiere (voice of Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth (voice of Ian McKellen). And the rendering of the Beast’s facial expressions is especially noteworthy.
Where the gap between the 1991 original and the new film truly shows is during Lumiere’s “Be Our Guest” number and in the new versions of the title song. The original animated “Be Our Guest”was a show-stopper, featuring Lumiere singing French cabaret style a la the masterful Maurice Chevalier. Here, the same scene is colorful but falls a bit flat. Before, there was the tilt of the hat, the wink, and a cancan tribute: now there is mainly comedy and very quick-paced editing.
The three new versions of title song “Beauty and the Beast” aren’t nearly as polished as the originals. Emma Thompson as the new Mrs. Potts provides a British accent but never quite attains the same depth of feeling or warmth that Angela Lansbury did. For the final scene, Thompson is joined in the serenade by Audra McDonald’s beautiful, but operatic, rendition and a soaring chorus. Ariana Grande and John Legend provide the song with a pop sound during the end credits. But that also doesn’t compare to the original duet by Celine Dion and the late Peabo Bryson, Dion’s first international hit long before 1997’s “My Heart Will Go On” (Dion does renew her connection to “Beauty and the Beast” by singing the long version of “How Does a Moment Last Forever” during the film’s end credits).
In re-making “Beauty and the Beast,” Disney knew it was balancing revenue from a proven vehicle against comparisons to its original hit. The box office figures are showing the company’s revenue gamble paid off. So, Disney’s business side will be happy. But, the company has the talent to truly present something new and unique. There’s an abundance of fairytales and folktales to choose from; it would be nice to see Disney focus on innovation once again.