Beauty and the Beast (2017)
If the price of Disney being confident enough to hand over a tentpole release to Oscar-winning filmmaker Bill Condon (“Gods & Monsters,” “Kinsey”) was that he directed the last two “Twilight” films, giving him box-office clout to do what he wanted, that whole awful franchise will have been worth it. Kudos to Disney for trusting him with the live-action adaptation of one of their most acclaimed animated musicals, the only one ever nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, because their trust brought us a haunting, beautiful film that can stand side-by-side with the original film, even if it doesn’t rise above it.
One thing Disney likely did not have to sweat in bringing “Beauty and the Beast” to live-action life was the casting of Emma Watson as the well-read, independent Belle. Casting the former Hermione Granger actress in the role is, honestly, a no-brainer, because the actor-turned-activist for gender equality projects intelligence and sympathy naturally. Of course she would fit into the role of one of Disney’s smartest, most endearing “princesses” like Cinderella’s foot in the glass slipper. Her singing chops are not remarkable, and admittedly, she isn’t able to sell her singing during the musical scenes as well as she is the emotions during the narrative moments (I liken her to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s work on the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” musical), but the momentum of her very presence in the role carries the film firmly, and confidently, on her shoulders. She obviously loves being in the film, and the role, and it helps bring the film to life as Belle’s capture-turned-romance with the Beast (Dan Stevens) unfolds.
Condon’s film, written by Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and Evan Spiliotopoulos, very much follows the animated film’s lead in the way it tells this story, starting with the Prince’s transformation into the Beast, Belle’s fending off of advances from the ghastly hunter Gaston (Luke Evans) before her father (Kevin Kline) is taken captive by the Beast, and she takes his place. Because adapting this requires expanding the running time from the animated film’s 84 minutes, padding the story a bit is required, and thankfully, the additions don’t really feel wedged into the story but help bring it together thematically. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for some of the new songs original composer Alan Menken has written with lyricist Tim Rice. Though not bad, it’s obvious they are afterthoughts to the story compared to Menken’s songs with the late Howard Ashman that have become among the most popular is Disney musical history (the titular “Beauty and the Beast,” “Be Our Guest,” “Belle” and “Something There”). Those set pieces work as well as they did in the animated film (even if much of the singing, by the actors themselves) isn’t quite as strong. Whenever we get a new song, however? The film loses something, although it still holds our attention.
If you are a fan of the original animated film, or a hard-core Disney lover, there’s not much to really quibble with here. It is fundamentally the same story, with the same emotional arc, made by filmmakers who treat the 1991 classic with reverence, but also make it their own. Watson and Stevens are the MVPs of the cast, but the rest of the cast (including Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Luke Evans, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Mack, Audra McDonald and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) does their roles proud. (Although, and all due respect to Emma Thompson, no one beats Angela Lansbury’s rendition of “Beauty and the Beast.”) And Condon brings the film together with a production team fully committed to honoring the dark nature of the story without forgetting that it’s also a “family film.” Whether we’re talking about the 1991 animated movie, or this new version, “Beauty and the Beast” fully solidifies itself as, truly, a tale as old as time. And this story, and in particular, its heroine, is one for the ages.