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A Tale As Old As Time

Emma Watson
Emma Watson
Walt Disney Studios
 129 Minutes
Rated: PG
Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens
Beauty and the Beast

It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as Walt Disney Studios has been cranking out movies in Hollywood. The studio jealously guards its various properties and seeks to maximize revenue from them in every way imaginable. And, since a substantial portion of the Disney target audience is under the voting age, Disney management long ago realized that trotting out their most precious properties every few years in one form or another represented an ongoing cash cow. The latest refinement of this strategy is the live action remake of one of their classical animated films, from Alice in Wonderland through Cinderella to The Jungle Book, taking advantage of 21st century technology whenever possible to turn animated magic into something seemingly, if not actually, more lifelike.


Some have derided Disney’s efforts as merely a venal money grab, but, to its credit, the studio hasn’t rushed cheap knockoffs into the theaters. Instead, these new versions are crafted with care, and, if they don’t quite have the original magic of decades-old animation, bring a certain spectacle in its place that can dazzle the young as well as soothe the not-so-young. Now, Disney has gone after the movie that represents the culmination of the revival of the studio’s animated division and one of the last traditionally animated classics, Beauty and the Beast. It’s no surprise that the live-action version is a beauty to look at, but it’s also an old-fashioned full-scale musical that rivals anything to hit the big screen this century.


The plot of the new Beauty and the Beast largely mirrors the 1991 animated version, but with nearly 45 minutes of additional screen time, the filmmakers are able to expand on the earlier film’s themes. A vain, uncaring prince (Dan Stevens) turns away a beggar woman who shows up at a lavish ball he is throwing. The woman is actually an enchantress who curses the prince, transforming him into a Beast with a lion’s head and ram-shaped horns. His various servants are also transformed into household objects. The enchantress gives him an out, however. If he can find true love by the time the last petal falls off a rose the enchantress leaves behind, he can regain his human form.


Years later, the prince is forgotten by the residents of the nearby town (thanks to another spell), and his abandoned castle is an icy wasteland, patrolled by wolf packs. Maurice (Kevin Kline), a kindly widower who scratches out a living selling various trinkets he makes, stumbles across the Beast’s castle and is taken prisoner. His daughter Belle (Emma Watson) tries to rescue him, and the Beast allows her to exchange herself for her father. Maurice tries to return to the castle in the company of Gaston (Luke Evans), a soldier who’s a longtime admirer of Belle, but Gaston leaves him to the wolves when he learns that Maurice won’t give Belle to him in marriage.


In the meantime, Belle and the Beast gradually get to know each other, and she discovers the sensitive side of his nature and the love of books he shares with her. When the Beast is wounded by wolves when he tries to save Maurice, she tends to him. Eventually, of course, the villagers do learn about the true appearance and, led by Gaston and his sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad), they set off for the Beast’s castle, intent on killing him and rescuing a Belle who does not want to be rescued by Gaston.


Of course, what made the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast a huge success was not the timeworn plot, but, rather, the Oscar winning score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, along with the memorable songs, especially the title song and “Be Our Guest.” The director of the new version, Bill Condon, is a musical veteran, with Chicago and Dreamgirls to his credit. Naturally, Condon incorporates these and the other familiar tunes from the animated version, but, instead of adding songs from the Broadway musical, incorporates new musical numbers by Ashman and Tim Rice (no doubt looking for some Oscar nominations). And, in staging the movie, Condon looked to the animated film for guidance.


The result is a roaring success. The songs are as charming as ever, but they are performed by a full entourage (as in the clip from the number “Belle” shown below), something the animated musical simply could not do. And, while the animated characters occasionally violated the laws of physics in their dance routines, the live action numbers are more spectacular simply because they show what talented performers actually can accomplish while still bound by Isaac Newton’s rules. Watson has a decent, albeit not a great voice, one more suited to the more intimate numbers. On the other hand, Luke Evans and Josh Gad throw themselves into their roles with gusto..


The CGI-animated characters are somewhat of a mixed bag, however. Lumiere, the candlestick (Ewen McGregor) is a delight, and he looks like what he is, a man with candles on his head and arms, none of which prevent him from dancing in “Be Our Guest.” Cogsworth the clock is a suitably gruff and perfectly cast Ian McKellen, while Emma Thomspon proves a more than credible stand-in for Mrs. Potts. Unfortunately, the animators can’t figure a way to make the tea cups, cabinets, and related objects look real. The result looks like something out an inferior knockoff of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?    


Ironically, the biggest drawback in regard to the animation occurs in regard to the budding romance between Belle and the Beast. In the animated version, audiences easily accepted a cartoon young woman falling in love with a cartoon beast, much as they accept a romance between a pig and a frog on The Muppets. But the difference in appearance between the live actress Emma Watson and the Beast is much more striking, and the film probably needed more time to make the romance more convincing.


The live action does make some other aspects of the film more realistic, however. Gaston, pretty much a preening buffoon in the animated version, is more sinister here when he tries to get Maurice committed to an asylum and, later, in the final confrontation with the Beast, one that is necessarily scarier and more menacing than in the animated version. As portrayed by Luke Evans, Gaston gives the new version’s climax some bite that the original did not have, despite all its charm.


You can’t recreate cinematic magic, and that’s what the original Beauty and the Beast was, an animated delight. But director Condon and the screenwriters don’t exactly try to recreate the first movie. Instead, have a different goal, using live action to build on some aspects of the original and making a film that caters to the strengths of the filmmaking method they’ve chosen. The new Beauty and the Beast is not magic, but it is as well constructed and delightful a film as can be made within the bounds of the genre. This film is quite a beauty in its own right.

In this scene, Emma Watson performs one of the numerous musical numbers in the film.

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Beauty and the Beast (2017) on IMDb