“The Jungle Book” and “Cinderella” were successful remixes of their animated counterparts, but the task of reimagining those films doesn’t compare to that of “Beauty and the Beast.” The original 1991 film is as perfect as the Disney formula could ever achieve.
While “The Lion King” may have it beat popularity, “Beauty and the Beast” outshines it in quality, which is why reimagining the film in the live-action format is such a daunting task.
Director Bill Condon’s take on such a seminal film in Disney’s library doesn’t do too much to radically alter what came before, however it still offers the same pleasant, sweeping experience delivered by a wonderful cast that gives their all in both their performances and musical numbers without a shred of cynicism.
Belle (Emma Watson) seems like a perfectly normal young woman. To her village, however, she’s a peculiar girl whose nonconformist tendencies like reading and not wanting to be married away are seen as a threat to their socially-stagnant status quo.
She dreams of an adventurous life outside her provincial one. When her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) leaves town to go to the market, he gets lost and stumbles upon a castle. After trying to take a rose from the garden as a gift for Belle, he is captured and locked away by the Beast (Dan Stevens).
Belle offers to take her father’s place in exchange for his freedom and becomes a prisoner inside the Beast’s castle.
Here, she learns that the Beast and all his servants, now inanimate objects, were cursed by an enchantress who cast a spell on the castle and everyone in it due to the Beast’s arrogance, leaving behind a single rose.
Should he learn to love another and earn her love in return before the last rose pedal falls, he and the castle’s occupants will be returned to their human forms. If not, they will remain cursed forever.
While some people have and will probably continue to perceive the relationship between Belle and the Beast as one of Stockholm-syndrome, both the 1991 film and this new incarnation tread very carefully in those regards.
Belle keeps her agency, independence, and intelligence even as prisoner. She does not immediately fall for the Beast, but rather she constantly pushes back against him and actively refuses to cater to his demands.
While her role as Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” series shares some of Belle’s characteristics, it doesn’t change the fact that Emma Watson was the perfect choice for this role. She strong and empathetic in all the ways this character should be.
Her empathy is what allows her to see past the Beast’s hulking, furry exterior and see the damaged soul inside. His cruelty is a product of growing up unloved and living in a society concerned with superficiality.
However, this doesn’t excuse his selfish attitude and bad temper, and the film treats these traits as things he must work hard to overcome.
Dan Stevens imbues the Beast with enough vulnerability and melancholy that he remains sympathetic even at his most vile.
Belle and the Beast are both outsiders and it’s this kindred spirit that allows them to see the beauty in each other. Their relationship naturally starts out as friendly and only as the two open up to one another does it lead to romance.
If Beast is someone who is broken inside because he’s never known love, then Gaston (Luke Evans), the main antagonist, is someone who has received nothing but adoration his entire life yet still desires to put others down.
The admiration of the townsfolk has fed Gaston’s narcissistic ego, and it’s this inflated idea of himself is what leads him to believe he is entitled to Belle’s hand in marriage.
In the real world, one full of Gamergaters and Men’s Rights Activists who seek to control and belittle women, Gaston feels like a timely villain. He has no empathy so he can’t understand Belle’s passion for learning and adventure. He sees it as a disease and he sees himself as the cure.
It’s Luke Evans’ charismatic performance that makes Gaston so fascinating to watch despite being so deplorable. He delightfully chews the scenery without coming across as a cheap imitation of the animated version.
The remaining cast all knock it out of the park, especially Josh Gad as Le Fou, Gaston’s right-hand man, who gives this now gay character more agency than his animated counterpart and gets to deliver some of the best lines in the film.
Both Gad and Evans shine here, especially during the film’s best musical number, “Gaston.” In fact, most of the musical numbers here work, especially the ones adapted from the original film.
Each one plays to the tone of the sequence. “Be Our Guest” and “Gaston” are the most theatrical and poppy while “Beauty and the Beast” is a slow, but emotional romantic ballad.
The three new songs have varying degrees of success. “How Does A Moment Last Forever” is fine, but too brief. “Days In The Sun” feels unnecessary. “Evermore” is the standout among the bunch, what with it being the song I’ve listened to the most since walking out of the theater.
Going back to the new material, the new story threads fare much better than the new songs. The backstories of Belle’s mother and Beast’s upbringing provide refreshing perspectives and context to these characters.
However, one such subplot that always seems intrusive is one involving Maurice. While Kevin Kline is fine in the role and I appreciate the filmmakers adding depth to what could have been a thankless role, we spend way too much time with him in the first half of the film to the point where it ultimately distracts and stalls off the crux of the story, that being the central romance.
Every time the film cuts away to Maurice, I found myself waiting for the scene to end so we could get back to the castle where our attention is invested.
“Beauty and the Beast” is occasionally weighed down by its bloated runtimes. Whereas the original film clocks in at a brisk 85 minutes, this runs at 129 minutes, and it comes dangerously close to making you feel every one of those minutes.
Nevertheless, when it has its priorities in order and focuses on Belle and the Beast’s evolving relationship does it all click together. While it was never going to come close or surpass the masterfully-crafted animated classic it’s based on, it still manages to be a fun, whimsical musical wrapped in an endearing love story that never falters.
This is a tale as old as time, but almost feels new again.
Final Rating: 7 out of 10