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Beauty and the Beast
STARRING: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans
DIRECTOR: Bill Condon
Genre: Musical romance
It’s a tale as old as time. Not just the story of a beautiful girl giving her heart to a tortured beast, but quite literally in my case as the first Disney animated film to be released in my lifetime.
Now, the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast might not be quite up there with The Lion King (then again, not much is), Aladdin or Hercules in my personal ranking of the Disney movies released during my formative years and its own renaissance period, but it’s still a classic, nonetheless.
And, that is partially the problem I have with this live-action remake. As much as I try, I cannot shake the cynicism out of my mind that this is manufactured purely for profit, rather than one inspired by the creative minds of an iconic studio.
I’m aware this is nothing new, and in the last few years alone they’ve given us live-action versions of animated films like Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and The Jungle Book (the latter of which was admittedly great). However, Beauty and the Beast feels different, as a much more recent movie that fans grew up with and almost claim as their own rather than the makers.
With this context in mind, and the knowledge of the risk-taking and pressure involved in handling the movie, it’s a good job that it’s done very well. The writers and director Bill Condon have done a commendable job of delivering what fans want, while also offering enough tweaks to not feel like a note-for-note copy offering nothing new.
What isn’t tweaked all that much is the basic story, which barely needs repeating. However, for the benefit of those who enjoy creating their habitat under rocks, the Beast (Stevens) is a vain, cruel prince punished by a curse that has transformed him into a monster, and Belle (Watson) is the bibliophilic local girl looking for more than her small village can provide.
The film is expertly cast, beginning with the title characters. Although probably the most annoying woman in the world, Watson is right at home bringing her innate intelligent, thoughtful nature to Belle (and who knew casting her as a voracious reader would work?), while Stevens - balancing the tricky nature of a motion-captured, digitally-enhanced performance - brings the right bitter, yet still soulful feel to the Beast.
Also integral to this story, of course, are the staff members in the Beast’s castle, who have all been transformed into household items by the curse. It’s impossible to imagine Disney’s Beauty and the Beast without Lumiere, Cogsworth or Mrs Potts, and with top notch digital effects and the voices of superb actors like Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson playing them, these characters vividly come to life.
Kevin Kline as Belle’s father Maurice is the only dud, with his American accent despite being the sole parent of a child with a British accent while both are meant to be French proving too distracting. Still, this is a movie featuring a singing candelabra after all, so it’s a minor quibble.
The visuals are as top notch as you’d expect with Disney’s endless budget (and wardrobe) ensuring that the film looks as grandiose as it deserves. What money can’t buy, though, are incredible musical numbers that aim directly at your emotions.
While there’s nothing here that can hold a candle to Angela Lansbury’s classic theme song, they are by and large decent. Purists should be warned there are some alternations from the originals, but as always, there has to be a balance between being a blatant copy and freshening up for a younger audience.
All the actors do solid work on the singing side. Watson, the one with the least musical theatre background, isn’t likely to suddenly launch a second career as a singer, but still holds her own alongside Stevens, giving numbers like ‘Belle’ plenty of emotion.
A little subtlety is lost in the update. When the source material was a concise 84 minutes of charming animated royalty, extrapolating that to beyond the two-hour mark feels unnecessary. No one really needed to hear the sob story of Beast and Belle’s parents, a mystery stretching back to the original 18th Century fairy tale, to become invested in their tale, or indeed the three unmemorable songs added for this version.
Nevertheless, this is still a watchable adaption that will no doubt captivate the hearts of pre-teen girls worldwide and rake in dollars like there’s no tomorrow. Then again, that’s the mission anyway, so the fact that it does so with strong performances and obvious dedication to the source material is the highest compliment I can pay it.
However, The Lion King is next up for this treatment. I think I’ll weep with despair.