Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
Disney is a known commodity when it comes to creating timeless masterpieces. Recently, they have been dusting off the cobwebs and giving their animation roster the live action treatment. Lavish updates that don’t take away from the original source material. “Cinderella”, “Pete’s Dragon,” and “The Jungle Book” all proved that it can be done and with films like the upcoming, “The Lion King”, “Dumbo”, and “The Little Mermaid” it doesn’t look like the mouse house is stopping either. “Beauty and the Beast” is one of those tales, based on a princess, that we have seen a dozen times. Thankfully, Belle (played here by the delightful Emma Watson) is one of those girls that can be someone other than a damsel. It was true in the 1991 Best Picture nominee, and it’s true in 2017. Bill Condon’s ambitious update is one filled with much precision. He tiptoes on the edge, with his orchestration team of Alan Menken and Tim Rice to help spruce up the soundtrack with songs you have heard and others you haven’t.
Don’t worry, the story is just as you left it too, there is a prince that gets turned into a raging beastly creature by an old enchantress hag. And in order to be turned back into the actor playing him, Dan Stevens, he must find true love and the meaning of inner beauty before the last petal of the iconic rose falls. Meanwhile Belle, the daughter of a widow tinkerer (an endearing Kevin Kline), yearns for a life outside of her village while turning down the eager advances of the dashingly witty, squared jaw, charm of Gatson (Luke Evans - I had no idea he could sing). Josh Gad does make waves as Lefou, Gaston's Smithers-like gay sidekick (the subject of which has been towering headlines for weeks) - I only wish that relationship, or the laughs, were as inspired and funny as the film thinks it is.
Belle eventually becomes the prisoner of the Beast in the haunted castle, which is populated by CGI moving houseware like the bickering clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) and his pal the hopeless romantic, french connoisseur, dancing candelabra named Lumiere (Ewan McGregor). Other notable characters get the big screen treatment too, and they all have a flow and look unlike the CGI motion capture of the Beast, who moozy's around unconvincingly from scene to scene with little to show for. He looks dizzy and fake at times.
Once in the castle, Belle and Beast fall in love with each other - almost too quickly. He goes from this scowling menacing captor to bookworm over night; she goes from inmate to sympathetic on a dime. And they fall in love with just enough time to save the day.
While everyone buying a ticket knows where the story ends up, it now becomes more about how we get to that conclusion as opposed to just sitting back and watching the movie unfold. Easily the best thing about this updated version is the casting. Specifically Watson, who captures the innocence, intelligence, and voice of Belle in a way that elevates songs, like the great opening number “Belle” to new toe tapping heights. Evans is also on the prowl playing Gatson, and it’s clear the usual action stud is having a blast playing up the ego. And Stevens has a terrific voice for Beast, too bad we can’t see him under the digital fur.
“Beauty and the Beast” is tons of fun when it remembers why audiences loved the film in the first place. Some of the more popular songs like “Be Our Guest” don’t feel as buoyant this time around because of all the flashy CGI taking away from the tune. But other moments, like the beloved ballroom scene, are flawlessly executed.
The movie runs a stalemate 130 minutes (a tad lengthy for the intended audience of seven or eight years old), yet “Beast” has enough mechanics working in it’s favor that some of my more harsh criticism can be dismissed. Still, this “tale as old as time” is known for the flavorful magic that is spruced throughout, and you may find yourself wondering why it feels like something is missing. I’m also having a hard time figuring out what the movie is trying to say now that it didn’t in 1991. Either way, the resounding message of self-love still resonates, but make sure you introduce the kiddos to the animated classic before taking them to see this one. B