With this 2017 update of Beauty and the Beast, we enter the third year of Disney’s seemingly very long term plan of remaking all their old animated classics in live action. We’ve already had Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Best VFX Oscar winner The Jungle Book, with Mulan, Aladdin, Lion King and more on the horizon, but Bill Condon’s redo of the first animated film to earn a Best Picture nomination is the first of the lot to bring all the original songs with it. This brings additional pressure, not only for the film itself, but also to prove that cartoon musicals can make the move to live action. Luckily for us and for Disney, it passes this test with flying colours, a sparkling and joyful modernisation of a beloved story.
Emma Watson takes the role of Belle, the beautiful and bored intellectual who wants to escape her small-minded village for the freedoms of Paris. Kept sane by her eccentric but doting dad (Kevin Kline, star of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, most likely due for its own remake at some point) and the local library, all she wants is to escape into ‘the great wide somewhere’, away from the illiterate yokels, headed up by the barge-sized moron Gaston (Luke Evans, who could not possibly be better cast).
Unfortunately for Belle, her eventual escape from her provincial town comes at the cost of her freedom, replacing her bumbling dad as the prisoner in the crumbling tower of the cursed Beast (Dan Stevens). It’s when we first meet the Beast, in his handsome and princely human form, that Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos’ script takes a rare diversion from its source material, altering his backstory slightly to make his devastating punishment feel more earned. Other than that, there a couple of new Alan Menken songs to join the iconic originals, but this is an incredibly faithful remake, practically shot-for-shot for long stretches.
This familiarity never turns out to be a negative thing, with the amazingly accurate recreations of the sets and costumes creating a world that is both fantastically gorgeous and comfortingly homely. The Beast also makes a very effective transition into ‘reality’, with a real sense of weight and Stevens’ performance shining through. Falling slightly flatter are the servants-turned-furniture – walking candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) is very charming, but teapot-with-a-face Mrs Potts (Emma Thompson) is really rather unnerving until you get used to her.
That’s no fault of the voice actors though – every one of them, from McGregor and Thompson to Ian McKellen as Cogsworth and Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, makes their role their own to the point where it’s hard to remember that they weren’t involved the first time around. Dan Stevens had a very difficult task as the Beast, having to wear a mo-cap muscle suit and stilts every day on set, but he’s still very charming and plays well off of the more stoic Emma Watson. It’s a good showing for the former Hermione Granger, capturing the camera’s attention even amongst all the fantasy goings on, even if the role doesn’t ask much in the way of emotional range.
Luke Evans and Josh Gad (as Gaston’s toadie LeFou) steal the show whenever they’re on screen, though the jokes they’re given are often a bit drab; their central number venerating the many feats of Gaston is just as overwhelmingly fun now as it was in the 1991 version. In fact, all of the songs are, from the jolly (and expertly choreographed) opening song that culminates in a shot straight out of The Sound of Music to a real showstopper of a take on ‘Be Our Guest’. McGregor, already a proven musical star, takes the spotlight with great aplomb as spectacularly trippy visuals flurry around him.
Watson, Stevens, and Evans all get a chance to really show off their vocal skills, and none of them ever fall short, with Stevens’ rendition of new song ‘Evermore’ particularly haunting and uplifting at the same time. And of course, the strains of ‘Tale as Old as Time’ have the power to somehow return you to your childhood even if, like me, you didn’t see the original until you were an adult. It’s a giddying achievement in a family blockbuster that really has no trouble in appealing to every age group.
Beauty and the Beast, in both its forms, is distilled Disney magic, storytelling at its most pure and good-natured, albeit simplistic. Love wins out over hate, true value is found within, and being an avid reader is enthusiastically encouraged. Seeing it brought to all-singing and all-dancing life without giving any ground to the possibilities of a darker or more cynical angle on the story is simply lovely, and though it won’t convert any Disney sceptics, it’s a powerful shot of unadulterated happiness for everyone else.