Nobody does magic like Disney. So one can just imagine the anticipation that has built up over this live-action adaptation of the beloved 1991 animated film. Disney has recently announced “live-action” remakes of their classic titles and of all of them, it was Beauty and the Beast that made us all stand-up and wonder.
Why fix something that isn’t broken? Mind you, this was the first animated film in history ever nominated for Best Picture by the Academy. Improving it is a tall order. But director Bill Condon (Chicago, Dreamgirls) not only introduces brand new filmmaking technology but also infuses a brand new dimension and soul to the characters resulting in a brand new magic altogether.
This iteration of Beauty and the Beast is multi-layered, realized, and rounded. The film is a successful translation from its 2D predecessor whose plot had enough holes and questionable loose ends that the groundbreaking animation and Oscar-winning music made you forgive. Condon seemed fully aware that turning the animated classic into a live-action spectacle required them to do more than making tea cups talk and clocks walk; it required them to fix the story, unknot the loops, and more importantly, humanize the characters.
One of the most noticeable changes was made to Belle (Emma Watson): a curious, stubborn, adventurous, ingenious and independent girl who feels prisoner to her own “provincial town”. Her desire to explore and discover is satisfied by the books she loses herself in, making her an outcast amongst the “small-town small-minded” folk. This is unlike her animated counterpart who just seemed bland, ignorant and care-free. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Belle other than Watson.
Belle finds sanctuary in her loving father Maurice (Kevin Kline), an eccentric artist who is just as much an outcast as she is. He introduces us to Belle’s mother who is long gone and describes her as “fearless” much to the delight of the adventurous Belle. She then finds an affinity to her absentee mother and develops a deep desire to know of her whereabouts and history.
Our favorite villains were rightfully given very satisfying character arcs as well. The handsome returning-from-war Gaston (Luke Evans) is hell-bent set on marrying Belle not because he loves her, but because he has developed a taste for the hunt. Gaston’s narcissism is upped a notch in this film, exposing his true monstrosity making him the perfect foil to the Beast. His more than happy assistant LeFou (Josh Gad) is given the colorful treatment as well. His obsession with Gaston is possibly anchored on a deeper and more palpable attraction with homosexual undertones. Of course, his unrequited love for his macho-oozing boss will have its consequences later on.
The heartless Prince turned into the Beast (Dan Stevens) by a rejected enchantress was also given a history explaining how things came to be before and after the curse. This naturally gave history to each of the talking antiques–Lumiere (Ewan Mcgregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and the rest of the living, breathing palace.
Disney could not have assembled a more perfect cast to breathe new life into the loved characters, each of them offering a different and more tangible humanity to their animated counterparts.
The production design of the film is a feature in itself. There are countless jaw-dropping visual moments that made it unbelievably realistic. Disney pulled out all the big guns in translating the animated film into a place so realistic you could almost feel it–from the village of Belle, to the woods, to the gorgeous and intricate enchanted palace of the Beast.
The architecture of the enchanted palace was particularly researched and detailed. While it had the familiar spaces of the animated film version, the attention put into each structural element made the palace seem actual and lived in. Watching it in IMAX 3D made the magic much more experiential. You will feel it from the grand staircase, the prison cells, the courtyard, the ballroom, the library, the towers, the bridges, and so on. This is the first time we're actually brought inside a real Disney Castle, and what added to the realism of the design was how each element was made functional.
Another example of this is how the iconic “Belle dresses” were reimagined to fit the character more than they were to liken the animated version. The blue maiden dress was made more functional with a hiked up skirt for riding her horse Philippe and pockets for books and whatnots. Her ballgown was quite simple, a humble design compared to the live-action Cinderella ballgown, but just as magical, and more importantly, just as memorable.
Arguably the single most important ingredient to the entire mix is the music. Alan Menken’s music. While we are lucky to revisit the favorite tunes from the 1991 classic–'Belle’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Gaston’, ‘Something There’ and ‘Mob Song’–there is brand new music in the film and not even inclusions from the Broadway adaptation of the classic. While Menken is missing his writing partner Howard Ashman for this one, he successfully brings forth new songs like Maurice’s theme, ‘How Does A Moment Last Forever’ and ‘Days in the Sun’. There is also a new aria sung by the impeccable Audra Macdonald as Madame Garderobe (The Wardrobe) and a brand new ballad for the Beast in ‘Evermore’.
While there is an ongoing argument about Emma Watson’s singing proficiency, I felt it didn’t take away from the soul of the film. Movie-musicals, I find, deliver better stories (and songs) when the actors are great storytellers than they are singers, and Watson is an excellent storyteller. Her singing flowed seamlessly into her dialogue and it didn’t detract from the audience’s suspended disbelief. It was nice to see ‘Gaston’ bloom into a full-blown production number proving that Luke Evan’s singing is directly proportional to his looks–he’s a genuine triple threat to look out for. Bill Condon's staging of the big musical numbers like ‘Belle’, and the ‘Mob Song’ brought me back to childhood watching the classic movie musicals like Sound of Music, Oliver and Fiddler on the Roof making the film large, grand and extremely memorable.
There was a moment during “Be Our Guest” that I found myself tearing through my 3D glasses. I couldn’t believe all this magic and music was real–happening right before my very eyes. It was a moment I wanted to never ever end. Truly, nobody does magic like Disney.
Disney’s Beauty and Beast is a modern musical masterpiece that re-introduces a beloved tale to a new audience. They did not only fix the animated film, but they also let it soar to new heights. While paying homage to the form and genre, and retaining what we loved about its 1991 predecessor, Disney has breathed new life and magic for the “Movie Musical” that should last us another generation or two. It seems like Disney is here to stay.