Disney’s latest attempt to spin box office gold out of affection for their old masterpieces is Beauty and Beast. Less alive and animated than the 1991 drawings, which added up to a film of lovely, romantic elegance, this new live-action effort nonetheless fashions its own charms. The foundation is sturdy, and the elaboration is vivid, in the grand old Hollywood tradition of lavish widescreen song-and-dance epic spectacles. It has the same ornate backlot flavor, the voluminous colorful production design, the matte paintings (albeit now as CG swooshes), the masses of extras, pokey pace, and earnest sentiment that the lumbering musicals of the 1960’s accrued. Here, like in, say, Gene Kelly’s 1969 Hello, Dolly!, is the charmingly stiff sweetness of eagerly putting on a show, of making sure every penny of a massive budget glitters on screen as famous faces sing their hearts out and dance as best they can, while the soaring score and witty lyrics make up for any doubts you may have about their performances. It’s easy enough to get caught up in the big-hearted gleaming nostalgia factory on display.
Differing from other recent Disney remakes, they haven’t enriched (Cinderella), reshaped (Maleficent), tinkered with (The Jungle Book), or overhauled (Pete’s Dragon). They’ve simply brought it back to the screen in new fashion. Despite the evident charm and ageless brilliance of the old music and lyrics, I remained skeptical that we’d be seeing anything other than an expensive reiteration, an animated classic unnecessarily elaborated into a glittering live-action repetition. The music bursts to life with the performers’ joy, and yet what is it but corporate karaoke at the highest level? And then, the real magic happened. I got totally swept up in the experience. The filmmakers rise to the challenge, using their evident love for and serious approach to the material to make something at once old and new, a concoction that hardly bests, and certainly never replaces or improves upon, Disney’s original telling, but instead finds a fine widescreen compliment to it.
Director Bill Condon, whose energetic and affecting Dreamgirls is one of the best theater-to-screen musicals of recent memory, invests in the heart and the spectacle, swooping the camera as its characters swoon and yearn. There’s poignancy and melancholy here, and even a touch of playfulness to its phantasmagoric romance, which contains a touch more backstory than its streamlined inspiration. Unlike the much-performed Broadway adaptation, this hugely crowd-pleasing film is never lethargic and rarely ridiculous in transposing the original’s vibrant visuals into something approaching live-action visualization. It’s loaded with glamorous visions decked out in resplendent production design and slathered in CGI accoutrements, real people and photo-real(ish) talking dishes and knickknacks investing in the emotion to this fantasy.
As the movie begins, past a brief prologue in which an enchantress’ curse turns a callow prince (Dan Stevens) and his servants into a Beast and his castle’s objects, respectively, it settles into the familiar rhythms of its inspiration. Small-town French girl Belle (the bookish beauty is played by Emma Watson, her casting surely a wink to cinema’s other great recent bookish charmer) laments her provincial life. The villagers chime in “Bonjour” for the big ensemble opening number that so quickly and wittily sketches in their small-minded attitudes and stuck-in-a-rut-routines, even bull-headed Gaston (Luke Evans), who mistakenly thinks Belle will fall for him.
Soon enough, Belle’s eccentric father (Kevin Kline) is stuck in the forgotten castle in the wild forests outside their town, a captive of the beast, and she trades her freedom for his. This becomes the slowly thawing story of connection as empathy and romance as understanding that you’d hope to see. Belle and The Beast (here a CG-assisted buffalo man, not as crisp as his drawn counterpart or as haunting as Cocteau’s makeup version in the forties, but nonetheless the right balance of handsome and perverse) come to realize they’re both outsiders. Yearning for acceptance they fear the town will never give them, they therefore have to find it for themselves. A great added detail to the curse has made explicit the townspeople’s lost memories of the castle and its inhabitants, lost to suffer alone. Crisply making sense of the simple emotional beats, the movie plays nicely in the familiar while providing an emotional texture that is different enough without distracting.
The story of the curse and the potential for true love’s kiss to life it is told through the usual boisterous musical brio – “Be Our Guest” and “Something There” – and the soaring title ballad, the late Howard Ashman’s lyrics as sparklingly clever as ever. Composer Alan Menken returns to the mix as well, stirring in lovely additions to the score and terrific music-box gentle numbers that add to the film’s emotional underpinnings. Now Belle gets a chance to sing mournfully and wistfully of her childhood, and her dead mother. The cast of animate inanimate objects (French period detail speaking with the great voices of Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Stanley Tucci) laments their lost “days in the sun.” And, most moving of all, The Beast thunders out a ballad brushing up against Brief Encounter depths to what he sees as a bittersweet potential end to his story.
Sturdy, solid, industrial-strength studio craftsmanship, the film stretches out with a reliably enjoyable and transporting balance of faithful recreations and sweetly subtle new grace notes (an extra sigh, an added look, slightly richer subplots for the objects and the villagers). These moving considerations serve up exactly the movie its audience of pre-sold fans expects while noodling around the edges for new emotional terrain on the margins. It's doesn't all work. A few of the classic numbers are a touch clumsy as reimagined, usually through awkward attempts at rooting it all in gravity and probability. Did we need to know where the spotlight in “Be Our Guest” came from? Not really. We’re already buying a talking candlestick. So the movie loads up the airy fantasy with some over-explaining. But in other ways, the film’s core is strong, and the intoxicating tug of fairy tale logic is embroidered with appealing new embellishments, and the production is lavishly phony, a blend of theatrical fakery and computerized production design melded in velvety cool blues and gold cinematography. It borrows its best moments, but pulls off a likable, even transporting, new entertainment, with the music magnificently flowing, the images a picture book theme park, every big emotional beat landing, and the moving finale misty and warm in the best way. You’ve seen it before, but, oh, how it works again!