Beauty and the Beast – Star rating: three stars ★★★✩✩
There is, let’s face it, a whole lot to live up to in remaking 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. The second masterpiece of the Disney Renaissance that started with The Little Mermaid, Beauty became the first animated film to receive a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, a feat that would not be repeated until 2010’s Up. It was also the first film to receive three nominations for Best Song – for ‘Belle’, ‘Be Our Guest’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, with the latter winning, Alan Menken picking up both that award and Best Score.
The film also serves as the ultimate tribute to Menken’s long-time writing partner, the lyricist Howard Ashman. Beauty and the Beast, upon which Ashman served as executive producer, was to be the final full project the pair worked on together, although Ashman’s work would continue with the following year’s Aladdin. Ashman died from AIDS-related complications before Beauty was released to the public, and the original film is dedicated to his memory.
So even before taking into account the public affection for the original Disney film, the stakes are high. Bill Condon, who adapted both Chicago and Dreamgirls for the screen (and directed the latter) would seem to be an astute choice to direct the remake.
Certainly, from the opening shot of the corporate identity – with Disney’s trademark Cinderella castle replaced with the Beast’s not-entirely-dissimilar chateau, Condon’s eye for detail is sound. And while the ‘small provincial town’ of Villeneuve has the whiff of studio set about it, there is a sense of geography about it as Belle exits her home – now in the centre of the village rather than on its outskirts, as in the Disney original – and wanders around in circles so that she can finish the song before arriving at the library.
It is this sequence which I must admit to have filled me with the most dread when it was first released online by Disney. So close is it to the sequence from the 1991 animated movie that it raised fears of a Gus Van Sant-style shot-for-shot remake, with all the soul and character removed.
But while it indeed lacks the immediate charm of hand-drawn animation, Watson’s trip round the village does establish a few small elements that recur later in the film, from the women and girls doing the washing to the headmaster leading the schoolboys into class, and a seemingly throwaway line from a minor character that will not pay off until the finale.
In short, this is the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, but with a few tweaks. And such is the state of events throughout – finely balancing the desire to reprise the predecessor film’s key moments, but with a small twist.
As such, Belle’s father Maurice (Kevin Kline) is no longer a madcap inventor, but an artist; the role of inventor now falls to his daughter (for a single scene at least).
More subversively, there are hints that the reason why the villagers regard Belle as eccentric is her heinous sin of learning to read while being a woman. Watson’s Belle is an indicator of the progress Disney has made in terms of its empowering its heroines, even as it celebrates the romantic ideal of marrying a handsome, rich husband with a title.
But despite such welcome advances, the film at its core does not step too far away from the template established in 1991. True, the enchanted castle’s animated furniture is more photo-realistic (and in consequence, far less lovable) but the character dynamics are pretty much the same, Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth and Emma Thompson’s Mrs Potts duplicating David Ogden Stiers and Angela Lansbury’s roles in the original fairly closely.
All the original film’s set pieces are present and correct, with Menken and Ashman’s songs illustrating exactly the same story points as the original.
Some new numbers are included, too: while songs from the Broadway and West End version do not appear (not even ‘Human Again’, which was inserted into the animated film’s 2002 special edition DVD release), Menken has written new numbers with lyrics by Tim Rice, most notably the lullabies ‘Days in the Sun’ and the recurring ‘How Does a Moment Last Forever’. For songs composed some two decades after the others, they feel a remarkably natural fit.
Whether the same can be said for Emma Watson and Dan Stevens as the romantic leads will depend on your view towards non-singers taking lead roles in movie musicals.
For this film, Watson passed on the role in La La Land with which Emma Stone won her best actress Oscar. Like Stone (and unlike Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle in the animated film) neither Watson nor Stevens, who plays the Beast, has prior musical theatre experience.
And regrettably, it does show in places. Their songs are competently sung, but there is little in the way of much more. In comparison, the bromantic duo of Luke Evans’ boorish Gaston and his comedy sidekick Le Fou (Josh Gad) clearly benefits from both actors’ stage musical experience.
Visually, the live action has the clinically artificial look that a combination of studio sets and CG environments is wont to produce. Technology does allow for some subtleties in the portrayal of the castle’s enchanted characters, altering their appearance as the deadline for the Beast’s enchantment approaches and they become more and more like the inanimate objects they could permanently turn into.
The price paid for this is a loss of personality in the visuals – Ewan McGregor’s bipedal Lumiere has none of the insouciance of Jerry Orbach’s candlestick, for example.
But whatever criticism can be levelled at the visuals, and despite a preponderance of untrained lead vocals, Alan Menken’s score and songs remain an unassailable delight.
This new version of Beauty and the Beast will not go down as the indisputable classic that its predecessor has become; but it retains enough of its charm to satisfy.