“Can anyone be happy if they are not free?”
Emma Watson and Dan Stevens take the leads in this live-action version of Disney’s 1991 animated musical Beauty and the Beast, which spawned a 1994 Broadway musical. All three works feature the now classic musical works of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice.
Audiences do not have to know the original stories before viewing this entertaining film since filmmakers provide great enhancements, expanded character development, and self-explaining visuals throughout the two hour and nine minute runtime.
Younger audiences will encounter more scares and mature references/themes as this version unfolds in the fictional French town of Villeneuve (named after the author of the original 1946 fairy tale La Belle et la Bête.
This artistic showcase also adds impressive new musical numbers as the intelligent, gorgeous Belle (Watson) yearns for a life beyond the small town where she lives with her father Maurice, well played by Kevin Kline. Belle’s a well-rounded, hard-working heroine with a love for knowledge, gardening and invention. Maurice protects her as they both encounter conflict from most townspeople while revealing his past through a great new musical song titled “How Does A Moment Last Forever (Music Box).” Their strong bond withstands the constant ridicule. “I am who I am because of you,” Belle tells her dad.
His delicate music box serves a deeper purpose beyond providing for the family while the invention side shifts to Belle who only has access to a few books. In this town, social status and looks are more valued. This unfortunate state fits the view of the antagonist Gaston, played by Luke Evans, perfectly. He constantly tries to convert Belle for his own purposes.
These points hit the main theme of the film – how we naturally judge ourselves, as humans. We look at our imperfections and we strive to make them better while we also recognize the qualities about ourselves that we appreciate, physically and personality wise. It’s very telling when you notice how this theme plays out with each character.
Stevens (Downton Abbey) plays a handsome, but conceited prince who finds himself transformed into a beast after crossing paths with an enchantress played by Hattie Morahan. This transformation also has a deeper impact on Villeneuve, which director Bill Condon (Chicago, Kinsey, Dreamgirls) contrasts well in wide overhead camera shots. Filmmakers give the Beast a computer-animated face that thankfully blends very well with the full body suit worn by Stevens.
Belle and the Beast develop into deeper characters through some important family background revelations and through their basic interactions. As they get to know each other more they identify with their similar plights. “When I enter a room laughter dies,” says the Beast, which mirrors most other characters’ reaction to Belle in the town setting. This bond naturally flows into a surprisingly emotional fantasy sequence in the castle library. These leads handle the challenging acting, dancing, and singing very well as Watson even uses her star power to bring in her favorite screenwriter Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) to shape the story with Evan Spiliotopoulos (Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning).
This duo provides more original humor (e.g. brush joke), key flashbacks and enhancing developments among the amazing musical numbers. For example, the comradery between the selfish Gaston and his loyal friend LeFou, played by Josh Gad (Frozen) now includes serving in the military together.
Emma Thompson (Brave, Nanny McPhee) provides the narration as well as the role of housemaid Mrs. Potts who’s now a teapot with her son Chip, played by young Nathan Mack.
Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!) plays Lumière the candelabra/valet and motion-capture performed the dancing and movements for the big Be Our Guest musical sequence.
Ian McKellen plays Cogsworth the mantel clock/butler as all the castle servants must contend with the prince’s struggles and often selfish demands. “I was really going to tell him off this time,” says Cogsworth as filmmakers follow with a funny, but weakly shot counter from Lumière where seeing Cogsworth facial expressions and full bodied action would have been more effective.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Plumette the maid/feather duster, Stanley Tucci plays Maestro Cadenza the composer/harpsichord and Audra McDonald plays Madame de Garderobe the opera singer/wardrobe.
New musical numbers include “Days In The Sun,” “How Does A Moment Last Forever (Montmartre)” showcasing Watson then another version by Céline Dion and “Evermore” showcasing Stevens then another version by Josh Groban. Ariana Grande and John Legend also perform the title song “Beauty and the Beast,” which was originally performed by Dion and Peabo Bryson.
Filmmakers give audiences a sneak peek of “Be Our Guest” when Maurice first encounters the prince’s castle. This song later becomes the film’s showcase among several dizzying sequences that might make you occasionally feel like you’re on a rollercoaster.
Condon directs the film well. He expedites the plot (forgoes a scene where the Beast asks Belle to a special dance by just adding the dialogue as the servants help him get ready) and enhances the musical numbers (In “Be Our Guest” he creatively adds a spotlight and special shadow on a tablecloth that reflects the servants previous physical state).
Some of his miscues include missing close-up shots on characters during key moments (e.g. missing Gaston when he sings ‘screw your courage to the sticking place’ during “The Mob Song” sequence, never giving the audience a good look at Chip in human form and Belle’s genuine exhilaration during her first visit to the library).
A bit of bad editing creates minor confusion at the end of a sequence in which Belle cleverly washes her clothes (seems filmmakers want to soften the blow of the townspeople ridiculing her). Several humorous segments include a snowball hit and the Beast’s eating methods while the crew even adds some parkour sequences to the action.
Disney’s future live-action adaptations of their classic animated films will include the upcoming Tinkerbell, Mulan and Aladdin, which filmmakers here tease with the key placement of the Agrabah castle during a big musical number.
This fantasy film is recommended. It is rated PG for scenes of peril, some action violence and frightening images while there is also thematic material and suggestive innuendo treated as amusing side notes (an added character action during “Gaston” musical number, reaction to a wardrobe change, ending dance partner).