Emma Watson in Beauty and the Beast (Photo: Disney)
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
***1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Bill Condon
STARS Emma Watson, Dan Stevens
Admittedly, a live-action version of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, one of Disney’s all-time great animated features, sounds like nothing more than a cash-grab, an easy way for the studio to make a mint off of gift-wrapped nostalgia. What’s truly wondrous is that this new Beauty and the Beast is a powerful piece in its own right, with everyone involved shedding copious amounts of blood, sweat and candle wax to produce a picture that illuminates rather than tarnishes the legacy.
In a year in which several of the biggest hits have been little more than sops to fanboys more interested in bloodletting than storytelling, here’s a film that should appeal to all demographics. The plot remains fundamentally unchanged from the ’91 model, and the narrative diversions that have been added along the way are acceptable and sometimes even manage to enhance particular points from its predecessor. While some great individual moments don’t survive the transition — I particularly missed the “If it’s not baroque, don’t fix it” line, which never fails to amuse me — what is transferred unencumbered is a true sense of enchantment and an even truer sense of romance.
Starting with Emma Watson, who proves to be absolutely luminous as Belle, the cast is top-flight straight down the line. As Belle’s father, Kevin Kline rescues the role from irrelevance – little more than dotty comic relief in ’91, here he’s a fully fleshed-out character with an added backstory that brings him into focus. Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen are dandy providing the voices of Lumiere and Cogsworth, and Luke Evans amuses as the conceited Gaston. Even Josh Gad, typically as welcome as a rash, is fine as Gaston’s sidekick LeFou. LeFou, as everyone has doubtless heard by now, has been transformed into an openly gay character. It’s a progressive change that neither helps nor hurts the overall narrative – ditto for the pair of mixed-race relationships found among major supporting players. I can almost taste those salty tears being shed by homophobes, racists and Trumpsters.
The 1991 Beauty and the Beast featured both the best song score and the best thematic score found in any Disney animated feature, and if there’s a major complaint to be lodged against this latest film, it’s that the new songs — doubtless added to snag an Oscar nomination or two — don’t compare to the original tunes and occasionally slow down the proceedings. But in most other respects, from the vibrant visual sheen to the enormous emotional pull, this picture doesn’t disappoint. To be sure, it’s no match for the animated take, which belongs in a special class all by itself. Yet on its own terms, it manages to return a splash of magic to the movies, even if only momentarily.