As directed by Bill Condon, Disney’s current re-imagining of their classic animated film, Beauty and the Beast, yields a stronger, more emotionally satisfying story in an exceptionally worthy live-action adaptation, sure to become another perennial family favorite, enjoyed and loved by all for years to come. Yes, there is much to love, here.
By now, we all know the setup…, an arrogant young prince (Dan Stevens), cursed by an enchantress for his cruelty, must live out his life in the form of a frightening Beast until he learns to love, and to be loved in kind.
The smart and stubborn village girl Belle (Emma Watson) volunteers herself to remain in the Beast’s castle as prisoner in exchange for the freedom of her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline). The Beast’s servants — likewise cursed for seeing who and what their prince had become, and doing nothing about it — correctly view Belle’s presence in the castle as the one chance the Beast has to achieve redemption and break the curse. With their help, Belle and hard-hearted Beast draw closer, each to the other, over time.
The number one grievance lodged against Beauty and the Beast seems to be, “Why a remake?” This criticism is a non-starter, a non-issue. Frankly, it’s a weak argument, as well as a false one. Film buffs know that, for instance, Hollywood took two previous swings at Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 detective novel The Maltese Falcon with 1931’s The Maltese Falcon, the first, pre-Hayes Code version, and 1936’s Satan Met a Lady, starring Bette Davis, before finally combining all of the necessary elements together in the perfect blend to produce the third and most famous version…, 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, written and directed by John Huston, and starring Humphrey Bogart. Had Hollywood simply given up and moved on after the less-than-stellar first iteration, the world would have been deprived of an enduring, definitive film noir classic. A similar case can easily be made in favor of this 2017 adaptation…, the filmmakers had much more to say about this timeless fairy tale that is eminently worthwhile, and they chose live-action as the means through which to spin their elegant tale. This is all the reason needed to justify a re-interpretation of an otherwise familiar yarn.
The primary issue with the animated Beauty and the Beast, if it can be said to have such, was always the “Why?” of the characters. Why is it that they are the way that they are? Why do they behave in the ways that they behave? Why was the repugnant Gaston so popular with the local populace? Why was the toady LeFou best friend to the hyper-masculine Gaston? Why wasn’t Maurice tossed into a lunatic asylum years earlier? Condon’s adaptation solves very neatly these questions, plus more that we didn’t know we had, such as the origins, as well as the ultimate fates of the Beast’s servants, both their lives and their curses linked inextricably to the formerly cruel prince. Likewise, a quick scene (which I won’t spoil here) inserted into roughly the midpoint of the tale, answers brilliantly, and with a beautiful storytelling economy, the “Why?” of both Maurice and of Belle.
Kevin Kline’s marvelous performance as Belle’s tinkerer father infuses Maurice with a warmth and a humanity that, in retrospect, was largely missing from the animated version (in which Belle’s daddy was little more than a charmingly wacky plot device). This Maurice, beyond being a loving and doting father, is an artist of rare skill, a maker of even rarer genius, as well as a still grieving widower who desperately misses his wife, and his daughter’s mother. When viewed through the filter of this new knowledge, Maurice’s actions and reactions become much more highly motivated, and much less madcap.
Luke Evans as Gaston, and Josh Gad as LeFou, very nearly walk away with the film. Evans and Gad are terrific actors, each infusing their respective performances with exquisite subtleties and nuances. We learn that Gaston, a bold French captain (loved and respected by the villagers for his service to his country), and the flamboyant LeFou are former military comrades-in-arms; they have history together, a friendship forged by the flames of war. Gad is a revelation; nothing he’s done before has even hinted at the sly subtlety in his performance as LeFou. To see Gad embody a love for Gaston that is, simultaneously, éros, philía, storgē, and agápe, is to see true mastery of the acting craft. Evans’s Gaston is similarly more complex; smarter, shrewder, far more subversively dangerous and, in the end, perhaps even more repulsive than his cartoon counterpart. The extra care and detail that screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos invest into fleshing out Gaston’s origins and motivations add a welcome emotional heft to Beauty and the Beast, which serves the story quite well in the end.
But to single out a handful of performances would not do justice to the impressive depth of Beauty and the Beast‘s tremendous talent pool. The music, satisfying both to both mind and soul, holds up steadfastly against the passage of time; the same songs, the same arrangements, but in perfectly lovely new interpretations, thanks to the game and multi-faceted cast. Ewan McGregor as Lumière, Ian McKellen and Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette, the swan-shaped feather duster; top to bottom, excellent performances, all (McGregor’s interpretation of “Be Our Guest” is particularly entertaining). The filmmakers did well to stock this dream cast with aces. Even so, a special mention must be made of the touching and tragically heart-wrenching relationship between Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza and Broadway star Audra McDonald as Madame de Garderobe; their deep bond of eternal love defies the sustainment of dry eyes.
This is a lush, beautifully photographed production; the filmmakers spared no expense in bringing this version to glorious, luxurious life. The production design is virtually flawless, straight across the board. The costume design is lavish, rich, and opulent; the set design is eye-popping, and jaw-dropping. The physical realization of Belle’s village, in particular, harkens back to the old school film magic of yesteryear, in which building an entire village was the only reasonable solution to the filmmaker’s need for an entire village in which to film. Expect Beauty and the Beast to be an awards season broom, sweeping up laurels and gold statues for its production and design teams.
BOTTOM LINE: See this film, now. See it in a theater, and cheerfully pay extra for a better presentation. Every penny will be well spent.