It goes without saying that “Beauty and the Beast” is my all time favorite from the Disney Renaissance era (1989-1999). While Little Mermaid and Aladdin come close, B&B hit every note perfectly, culminating in an emotional and heart warming journey for this viewer.
While there is a lot of debate over Disney’s decision to adapt their animated classics into live action films, I have been pretty happy with the results (Cinderella, Jungle Book, and Alice in Wonderland comes immediately to mind. The only one that really misses the mark is Maleficent). And while profits and built in audiences are obvious reasons for taking this route, I haven’t felt these new versions to be creatively bankrupt or slave copies to the originals. I would dare say that Cinderella, in particular, brought an emotional heft and range to the characters missing from their predecessors.
Beauty and the Beast, by its very nature (hah), would prove to be more challenging. Not only is it more fresh in the public consciousness (when compared to the other Golden Age adaptations), but the music and story beats have become almost sacred. There’s always that razor thin line between slavish devotion to the source material or swaying so far out that unfamiliarity begins to sour the audience.
I was intrigued with the initial casting of Emma Watson as Belle. There has been criticism of her overall performance as being too flat and limited (her singing is also an issue, but I thought it was passable as I’ve never thought of her as a singer first). While I can see where this negative reaction stems from, I think it’s part of Emma’s overall package as an actress. She's clearly a beautiful and intelligent person, but there is a part of her she privately guards from audiences. I don’t think you’ll ever see Emma bare her soul the way some actors can, leaving it all on the screen. But this is not a knock against her acting, in fact, I think this inaccessible mystery is part of what makes Emma interesting. Her persona is part of nearly every character she portrays (very similar to how I feel about Keanu Reeves. His reputation for being a truly nice guy inhabits his screen roles, even when playing tough guys like John Wick). It took me about a third through the movie before I stopped seeing Emma, and started seeing Belle. By that point, I was sold. And as the movie progressed though the more dramatic beats, I found myself reacting emotionally to the conflicts and heartbreaks (which tells me a movie is firing on all cylinders).
Props to director Bill Condon for knowing when to stay the course and went to chart new trails. The musical sequences would make or break this film, and Condon stays faithful to the animated classic, while staging it in a way that gives the audience a new viewpoint. I thought both Luke Evans (Gaston) and Josh Gad (LeFou) were excellent, and I was especially surprised by Evan’s adept ability to sing and dance (the tavern scene for “Gaston” was a highlight for me, even outdoing “Be Our Guest”).
Where the movie doesn’t quite work for me is in the CGI handling of the secondary characters…Lumiere, Mrs. Potts, and especially Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth. With an actor of his stature and talent, one would think you’d try to utilize his features as much as possible (ala the Wizard of Oz makeup for Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, and Jack Haley). While there are slight resemblances to the actors, these newer versions pale in comparison to their animated counterparts.
Beast, on the other hand, was exceptionally executed. It was never going to be as “lovable” as the cartoon version, but the film makers found just the right sweet spot in making him both dangerous and sympathetic. Dan Stevens, who I’ve never seen before (but am absolutely loving in “Legion”) does an admirable job of conveying the Beast’s inner torment and despair. I love how the movie gave a little more insight into the childhood trauma of both the main characters. The backstory of Belle’s mother is haunting, but the abusive nature of the prince’s father is even sadder.
With a cache of classic tunes from Alan Menkin and the late Howard Asherman already on display, any new song would be at a major disadvantage…sounding out of place, and worse, musically inferior. So it’s almost shocking to me that “Evermore” stands out as the movie’s most poignant musical scene with Stevens hitting it out of the park as someone who realizes the wrongs he’s done in his life (something everyone can easily relate to). It doesn’t hurt that both Menken and Tim Rice are the creative forces behind the music and lyrics.
In my final verdict, this new live version of BATB will never replace the original classic, but instead, will sit proudly beside it as an alternate take on an enchanting tale!
(All photographs copyright 2017 by Len Yokoyama. Sorry these aren't from the movie itself!)