Director Bill Condon called the original Disney take on Beauty And The Beast a “perfect” film, in an interview with this very site back in 2015. It damn near is for my money too, and the economy, the storytelling and the richness it packs into less than an hour and a half is spectacular.
Condon’s live action take on the story, firmly using the animated classic as its basis and heart, runs to 129 minutes (including credits), and therein lie its inevitable problems. That a story that had been worked and trimmed and cut to just the right length is now a third longer again. The grumbles that follow are a consequence of that decision.
However – and I say this as someone who nerdily adores the 1991 movie – Condon’s film is very good. Its decisions as to where to expand upon the source are intelligent, and whilst there’s occasionally a question answered that I didn’t think needed asking, there are small changes that Condon makes that really work here. Some surprising ones, too. What’s more, they go some way to artistically justifying the new film (because, let’s face it, the commerce side is long covered).
The core story is the same. Belle, played by Emma Watson, is a headstrong girl, living on the fringes of a small French village, where she doesn’t quite fit in. She lives with her father, played by Kevin Kline, and is the object of affection for Luke Evans’ Gaston. Meanwhile, in a castle just a camera zoom and a bit away lives a young prince – Dan Stevens – who refuses to help an old beggar woman when she comes to his door. She reveals herself to be an enchantress, who puts a spell on him and the castle’s inhabitants. He’s turned into a beast, they’re turned into pieces of furniture, and the Beast needs to find love – and be loved by another – before the petals from a magical rose have all dropped.
From the off, even as it covers those bases, it’s clear that this is no half-hearted effort. Condon’s film is sumptuous, coated in detail, and made with real affection for the Disney original (willing, too, to dip into earlier tellings of the story). The opening prologue, for instance, introduces us to a castle and ball sequence that rivals Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. The small differences start to become apparent earlier, too. We spend, for instance, some time with the young prince in Dan Stevens guise before his transformation into the Beast of the title. The wording of that prologue has altered, and been slightly modernised, and when we get to the opening Belle number, little changes and accommodations have been made to ground things in a little more live action reality. This trend continues. Gaston no longer eats five dozen eggs, the Beast is far more educated, Maurice is no longer a “wacky old coot”, digs about his mental health utterly toned down.
These changes have narrative impacts too. Things generally slot into the same places they did in the story we already know, but the route they take to get there is often notably different. Devotees of the earlier movie will inevitably indulge in a little bit of ringing the changes. After all, it’s impossible not to end up comparing it to the animated film, not least because this new version firmly ties itself firmly to it. Key songs, the musical score, and the look of the characters, are heavily dependant on the pathfinding that’s been done before.
Yet there are distinctions of merit. Some of the performances, in particular, are a treat. Josh Gad, for one, has enormous fun with the sidekick character LeFou, adding some killer lines and a devotion to Gaston that’s far more fleshed out. Gaston and LeFou are far more of a double act, and Evans too is excellent value here. In fact, the supporting cast have a ball. Ian McKellen’s take on Cogsworth is a treat, Emma Thompson is the singing teapot you never knew you wanted and whilst Ewan McGregor’s French accent may stretch things a little as Lumiere, he’s hard to resist.
In the lead roles, Emma Watson is fine Belle. Her singing is good, although not at the level of Paige O’Hara (perhaps inevitably, given O’Hara’s grounding in Broadway musicals). Crucially, her performance is believable, honest and good. Stevens, buried under CG for large parts of the film, inevitably has a battle to make as full an impression. His Beast has the scary edges knocked off early too (I’m not sure that’s to the benefit of the film, either), and that means this film focuses more purely on the love story earlier on in the story, than the outright unease between the two lead characters. In fact, if anything, this new Beauty And The Beast leans just a little to being Belle’s story more than a split between the two of them.
But I was good with that. I figure if you’re going to remake a film that’s got little wrong with it, you may as well try a few things, than go shot for shot. Condon strikes gold too by enhancing the ending to the movie slightly, in a way I won’t spoil. There are new songs from Alan Menken and Tim Rice too that, whilst not at the level of the originals, are earworm additions.
Still, I can’t work out if I’m the best or worst audience for this film, given how much I love the Disney original. But that notwithstanding, this new take worked for me. I think the economy of the first film has been traded off for richness in some places, and I did feel that occasionally, it was using five seconds to do something when four would do (metaphorically, rather than literally). Yet the screen explodes so often – the Be Our Guest number, costing more than Condon’s last film in entirety, is stunning, for instance – the characters are so strong and the production values so high, that I confess I was really swept up in it.
A full on, lavish, theatrical musical, a tale as old as time, an unnecessary remake, a little too long, and made with clear love? Guilty on all counts. You might just learn to love a Beast again, too…