When I first saw the music video on TV with Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson in 1991 that was the first time I learned about Disney’s animated adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast”. While Disney scholars might say otherwise, I saw this film then as the true start of a new direction for Disney cartoon films (the 90s Disney Renaissance which “officially” began with “The Little Mermaid” in 1989). And what an experience it was when I first saw the film in full, a truly spectacular audio-visual extravaganza (words I never would’ve been able to put together then, at nine years old). It has remained a fond memory of my late childhood, from before puberty and so on. You can only conceive my hype back in 2016 when word came of a live-action adaptation, starring Emma Watson of “Harry Potter” fame to boot. I got to see it on opening week in a capacity theater, and it was everything I could ever imagine and more.
Coming off their most recent live-action “conversion”, that being 2016’s “The Jungle Book”, the pressure seemed really on considering that “Beauty and the Beast” was one of Disney’s most popular and enduring animated feature films (the first such to get an Oscar nomination, even). Questions regarding the casting of Watson as the leading lady Belle were abound, with reasons running the gamut from her ill fit for the role and the fact that she, a leading speaker on feminism, will be playing a woman who supposedly falls for her captor a la Stockholm Syndrome. She counters this by reaffirming Belle’s fiercely independent and intellectual bookworm character, which has also been reinforced by certain tweaks in the original narrative.
Speaking of tweaks, the production also went out of the way to expand upon the adaptation with details that cover up some of the plot questions from way back in 1991. For example: Why is a prince living alone with servants in the castle? Why did the nearby town never know about an enchanted castle out in the woods? Where is Belle’s mother? Why do the townspeople hang onto everything Gaston says and follow his lead? Where did the enchantress go? Such queries are touched upon in the live-action narrative right with some slight alterations to some characters like Belle that changes some angles of the storyline for the better.
Fans of the 1991 film might recall how Belle was described the villagers to be a “beauty but a funny girl”. While they are indeed taken aback by her interest in books (historically not something women of the period bothered with) the view of weirdness seems strange just because her father happens to be an eccentric inventor. One changed element of the remake now has Belle be the inventor of the family – one scene features her animal-powered washing machine – while her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) is a more normal craftsman of music boxes. From here this alteration leads to a new view in their family dynamics, such as the fate of Maurice’s wife and Belle’s mom. But the real meat of the story occurs just as in the cartoon when Maurice wanders by accident into the cursed castle and gets imprisoned by the resident prince-turned-Beast (Dan Stevens).
Reservations aside, the choice of a “Harry Potter” veteran in Watson and pairing her up with a star from “Downton Abbey” in Stevens was a remarkably fortuitous move. Their characters are incredibly matched, and their interactions in the film (along with the storyline additions that sought to minimize accusations of Stockholm being the impetus for romance between Belle and the Beast) were spot on. That’s not to say the rest of the cast merely revolves around the two leads. Also effective (if more realistically proportioned than his animated version) is Luke Evans, who brings a darker and more sinister flavor to the antagonist egotist hunter Gaston.
The enchanted servants were also a delight (and also get more airtime as humans at both beginning and end). The vitriolic friendship between the more liberal Lumiere (Ewan McGregor with accent coached by his French wife) and the straight-laced Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) was more nuanced than the cartoon violence of the original. Rounding up the principals are Emma Thompson as the motherly Mrs. Potts the teapot and Josh Gad (Olaf of “Frozen”) as Gaston’s sidekick (and wannabe more) LeFou, whose reported gay undertones are far more subdued and non-stereotypical than the news would’ve suggested.
The film’s soundtrack is of course fantastic, being lifted off the original film and redone by the same people: Alan Menken and Tim Rice from the original words by the late Howard Ashman. In addition to the old-made-new tunes are several additional numbers from the likes of Celine Dion and Josh Groban, each contributing new original songs to the soundtrack. The title theme, both in-film and the credits pop version, were redone by Thompson and a duet of John Legend and Arianna Grande respectively, which were quite nice themselves.
No further things can be said, and a storyline summary isn’t quite required. “Beauty and the Beast” in live action was like taking its base animated form, getting top actors and epic CGI work, copying the beats of the original and adding more meat, then dialing up the intensity all the way up to Infinity and Beyond. Go see it, for real.