We’ve grown so accustomed to watching film and video on comparatively tiny handheld gadgets that when a big-budget Hollywood musical can be so visually and emotionally impactful on the big screen in this day and age, it already is a huge compliment to its charms. But this is no ordinary film, “Beauty and the Beast” is a live-action remake of one of Walt Disney’s most cherished classics and with that, it bears plenty of responsibility to both recall the original 1991 animated classic but also forge its own path — almost as if it needs to prove there’s a reason for its existence.
Put simply, while Walt Disney Studios continues to rake in money at the box office with live-action retellings of their best animated movies, and indeed have several more in the pipeline for the foreseeable future, is there an actual necessity to present this story again to not just audience members who aren’t as familiar with the original but more importantly to the many die-hard Disney fans?
Saddled with expectations and hype, remaking “Beauty and the Beast” is an especially tricky proposition in ways that didn’t burden previous Disney live-action films, either remakes or based on a classic character such as “Maleficent” or the upcoming “Cruella De Vil”. For one, the original is much newer than the original “Jungle Book” or “Cinderella,” meaning my me and my wife, along with so many other passionate Disney fans, actually grew up when the original hit the theaters and became a cultural sensation, further cementing (or perhaps restoring) Disney’s reputation for crafting lavish, critically and commercially successful animated films. In the words of co-star Josh Gad in a live Q&A session beamed to our theater during our sneak preview, “Beauty and the Beast” was basically the “Frozen” of his childhood.
Also, while Belle is certainly a strong character in the original, how does Disney update and modernize the story for a 2017 audience while also staying faithful to the original source? And for all the technological advancements on display for the animated version, how would that translate in live action — especially with regards to the Beast himself?
Thankfully, it’s now quite apparent that Disney and director Bill Condon didn’t simply rush to film this while laughing all the way to the bank and putting one over on Disney fans. Every frame, every attention to detail in the majestic castle, comes to life in ways that the original admittedly can’t. For as much as animation can quite literally bring to life just about anything a story needs conjuring, there’s something thunderous and terrifying about a “true-to-life” Beast plodding in the snow as he hunts down his prey — whether it be a wolf or Belle’s father, expertly and warmly played by Kevin Kline. The details of his thick and wiry fur, his expressive eyes, his booming voice — all of it has more resonance later as the outward layers of primal rage and regret slowly are peeled away as he warms up to Belle through the course of the movie.
I’ll admit I wasn’t truly convinced that Emma Watson could pull off this role when she was first announced as Belle two years ago, but her passion for the character and her pure talent really shines through during the course of the movie. Her resourcefulness and inventiveness is perhaps more on display in the village where she lives, she even invents a washing machine in this version, rather than during her imprisonment in the castle but it nonetheless shows Disney and Watson’s eagerness to add new wrinkles to the character without changing too much and straying too far away from what worked the first time. Certainly Belle is beautiful, quite capable of warming any lonely Beast’s heart just with that, but it also her compassion and affection that comes across in a myriad of ways such as the look in her eyes when she first arrives at the massive library within the castle, her smile when she meets Chip the Teacup, etc.
Some of those qualities also benefit the performance of Dan Stevens, who does his very best to shine through as the Beast despite wearing a cumbersome suit and stilts with CGI work piled on top of that. While at times walking alongside Belle in broad daylight he may appear a bit too CGI and mechanical, it is thankfully only in rare occasions and certainly doesn’t detract from the film. The motion capture on his face, in which he separately recorded with Watson once a week after they were done filming for the day, is when Beast truly becomes alive and expressive. Because Stevens is the true embodiment of the human buried deep inside the Beast, both literally and figuratively, his performance becomes all the more poignant when the prince is truly revealed at the end.
Arriving as antagonists but also crowd pleasers, both Gaston (played by Luke Evans) and LeFou (Josh Gad) provide welcome comic relief and much more in their roles. Their chemistry is undeniable and their performance of “Gaston” may very well be the highlight of the movie alongside the famous ballroom dance scene. I also really enjoyed Ewan McGregor’s performance as Lumiere and couldn’t help but recall “Moulin Rouge” when he sings “Be Our Guest,” another song-and-dance highlight of the movie. Another highlight was Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts singing the title song and taking over for Angela Lansbury. Speaking of the music, it was already a treat to hear all of these classic songs in a movie theater but the additions of the new songs and modified lyrics to some of the original tunes made things fresh and not just a note-for-note remake.
At our IMAX screening, the oversized format was the perfect compliment to such a large-scale production and is highly recommended. While we didn’t get to see it in 3D, we can’t wait to return to the theater to enjoy it again as there are several scenes, including the ballroom dance, that will undoubtedly shine through in 3D.
While it may have been the riskiest of the live-action remakes for Disney, “Beauty and the Beast” accomplishes the rare feat of being a solid crowd-pleaser without trampling on the feet of the original. For a movie that is as larger than life as a dancing Beast on stilts, that’s quite impressive.
“Beauty and the Beast” will be released in the U.S. on March 17, 2017, in standard, Disney Digital 3-D, RealD 3D, IMAX formats and Dolby Cinema.