3 stars (out of 4)
It’s a tale as old as time and song as old as rhyme.
That’s why the story of a beautiful girl giving her heart to a tortured beast remains a classic. And it’s why this beguiling, much-anticipated live-action musical adaptation will win over fans of all ages.
Wellllll … for the most part. Let’s take care of important business early: The film does not fully recapture the undeniable magic of the 1991 animated feature. Jerry Orbach’s amorous maître de turned candelabra, Lumiere, can’t just be replaced by some modern technological wizardry and Ewan McGregor’s brogue. It’s like asking Ariana Grande to cover an Oscar-winning Celine Dion ballad! (Shoot. That happens too.) As a stand-alone Disney production, though, this blooms like an enchanted rose.
Surely you remember Belle. She’s the loner bookworm in a French farm town who cries out in the opening number, “There must be more than this provincial life!” As played by the lovely and lithe Emma Watson, the character is, at first, more timid than her animated counterpart. (Or maybe it’s a side effect of Watson’s tentativeness in singing to the CGI-enhanced mountains? The scenery tends to overwhelm her.) She’s still protective of her wacky single father (Kevin Kline) and rolls her eyes at the local hunk of burning love, Gaston (Luke Evans, an impressive baritone).
Thanks to a series of unfortunate events, Belle ends up imprisoned inside a faraway castle belonging to a beast (Dan Stevens). The beast, a former young prince, is himself trapped — inside his own skin, a result of a sorceress’ evil spell. And his loyal staff have turned into household objects, including Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Lumiere (McGregor), Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald) and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci). The only way this will end happily for all is if Belle, on her own free will, looks past the Beast’s grotesque exterior and falls in love with his sweet, shy soul. (Flashback to Tucci archly telling Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, “That’s what this multi-billion-dollar industry is all about, isn’t it? Inner beauty.”)
There’s an unbridled joy at watching a cinematic cartoon come to life. If it’s done right, every moment has the potential to be a visual marvel. And director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) does a splendid job at marrying rich production designs with old-fashioned spectacle. Best example: all the dishes and flatware and napkins sashaying across the screen in the show-stopping “Be Our Guest.” They move as if they’re all competing in the group number of Dancing with the Stars. This would have looked hokey in 1991; in 2017, it’s dazzling. Even the sight of Watson trying on gorgeous costumes in her bedroom is a wonder. When she walks down the staircase in that iconic yellow ball gown, it’s as true (and goose bump-inducing) as it can be.
This version also offers up a wee bit more in the line of, er, fleshed-out characters. Ultra-macho Gaston doesn’t just swagger around the bar belting out his theme song, he shows his sinister side by lashing out at Belle’s trusting father in a forest. And perhaps you’ve heard that his sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) is the first gay character in Disney history. Translation: For a half of a second in the closing scene, he decides to dance with another guy. Baby steps?
Yet a certain je ne sais quoi is missing here. Perhaps mild disappointment is inevitable when the source material is 84 minutes of charming perfection. This version hovers around the two-hour mark, which is about 20 minutes too long for parents trying to get their young daughters to sit still and pay attention. The extra time is weighed down with three listless and unmemorable new songs from original composer Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice. (Menken’s partner, lyricist Howard Ashman, died of AIDS in 1991.) These new tunes — as well as their contextual plot — add little to the narrative. Dating back to the 1740 fairy tale, we’ve gone centuries without knowing exactly how Belle’s mom died. No need to turn back the clock now.
Unlikely romance aside, this film soars because of the beauty in the title. Watson, who reportedly turned down Emma Stone’s role in La La Land to take a crack at the heroine, portrays the character with a quiet confidence. No shrieking princess, she bravely hatches a plan to save the beast, knowing full well that she’s risking her life. In modern times, she’d be the first one to speak out for her rights — and be the most well-versed on the subject. Beyond the yellow gown is a true warrior, inside and out. She’s just too busy to realize it.
(Beauty and the Beast opens in theaters Friday, March 17).