The Live-Action Beauty and the Beast

How is it possible that a story about a woman prisoner falling in love with her beast captor is still this enchanting?

Beauty and the Beast
Barely even friends, then somebody bends, (not so) unexpectedly: Belle (Emma Watson) and the Beast (Dan Stevens) in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

2016© Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Once upon a time, in a faraway land known as Burbank, California, an iconic movie studio decided to go back to its deep well of beloved and lucrative properties and imagine one of them anew in a different mode. Audiences ate it up (even if critics didn’t), and just like that, a money-pumping machine was built. As the years went by, the studio returned to that well a couple more times, and the profits were still mighty impressive. One winter’s night, an old wealthy businessman came upon the studio and placed a terrible spell on everyone who worked there: For the foreseeable future, they must repeat this strategy. All. The. Time. Not a single movie in the vault would be left un-rebooted. (Ok, except maybe this one.) The workers had no choice, really—for who could ever learn to love an original screenplay?

Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson as Belle, is the latest on a seemingly endless conveyor belt of Disney live-action remakes that have thus far included the releases of Alice in Wonderland (and its sequel), Cinderella, and The Jungle Book—but this time, the stakes are seemingly higher. Whereas those films relied upon sources half a century old or older, distant enough to be remembered fondly by multiple generations, but not recent enough to rankle possessive, nostalgia-obsessed millennials, Beauty and the Beast is different. It’s only been 25 years since the original’s release, and the film has not faded much from the cultural imagination, thanks to home video re-releases, a hit Broadway adaptation that closed a decade ago, and the internet. It’s widely considered the crème de la crème as far as Disney—and Western animation, period—goes, having the distinction of being the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture.

If my packed, exceptionally enthusiastic screening audience and the jaw-dropping advance ticket sales are any indication, this new Beauty and the Beast will have no trouble reaching box office highs. But once the guests are seated, will they be enchanted by what appears on the screen?

No one’s slick as Gaston, no one’s quick as Gaston (Luke Evans).

Laurie Sparham/© 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

They’ll be engaged, at the very least. Contrary to what the promos would have you believe, this is not a shot-for-shot, line-for-line remake à la Gus Van Sant, and surprises abound. While much of the original script remains the same, screenwriters Steven Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, as well as long-time Disney composer Alan Menken (who also wrote for the original, along with the late Howard Ashman), sprinkle in just enough new material and character development to help it feel fresh. Emma Watson is unsurprisingly perfectly cast as our bookworm heroine. Animated Belle was already a pretty feminist character, at least within Golden Age of Disney parameters, but in this new version, slight details position her more firmly in 2017—when she takes her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner, she’s already plotting her own escape rather than resigned to spend her life in the castle forever. (At one point, we see her attempting to build a rope out of sheets to climb out the window.) Maurice (a warm and sensitive Kevin Kline), Belle’s father, insists that she’s just like her deceased mother, “fearless.” A scene in which she’s harassed by other townsfolk for teaching another young girl in the village how to read—“Isn’t one girl reading enough?” one exclaims—is simultaneously disheartening and funny.

Those tweaks can’t quite make you forget that this is a tale as old as time about a woman prisoner falling in love with her beast captor. But they help, as do the scenes in which Belle and the Beast bond over books—in the original, the Beast never shows any interest in reading; here, they debate the merits of Romeo and Juliet—which are played with light humor and sharp timing. The circumstances of their budding relationship are still pretty screwy, but at least you can sort of get why Belle would go for him now.

(On a different progressive note—if you can really call it progressive—LeFou, as inhabited by Josh Gad, is no longer the bumbling, crafty dork of a sidekick but instead the 1960s Robin to Luke Evans’ deliciously chauvinist Batman, pining unabashedly for Gaston as he tries to help him win Belle’s hand in marriage. That “exclusively gay” moment Condon coyly referred to in a recent interview does not feel so trailblazing considering that Gad seems to be channeling Paul Lynde throughout his entire performance.)

As for the musical numbers: The three new songs, including a plodding ballad that the Beast sings while brooding around his castle, are unfortunately forgettable. The standards are hit or miss. “Belle” is a bit of a letdown, as the song has been slowed and stretched out considerably to allow for more exposition in between, lacking the brisk early-morning crackle of the original. As a singer, Watson aims for the same style Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling apparently went for in La La Land, which is to say, thin-voiced under the guise of “natural.” “Be Our Guest” puts a modern-day computer-generated spin on that incredible centerpiece and is visually dazzling, though perhaps not to as great effect as the original. (The all-star cast behind the castle’s staff, including Audra McDonald as a wardrobe, Ewan McGregor as Lumière, and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, are all pretty great throughout, and they get some laughs from their extended banter.)

And so as an exercise in finding something there that wasn’t there before, while serving up pleasant familiarity for young and old alike, the movie falls in line with the surprisingly entertaining Cinderella remake. You’ll probably walk away longing to revisit the original for the ump-hundredth time. But isn’t that the point?