Mermaids in the jungle!! (*o*) <3 If that is not a lovely idea, I don’t know what is! I was about to give her a yellow bra to match her iconic dress, but I have made so many yellow themed mermaids already, so I went with the color-sheme of one of her other outfits.
The 1991 animated version of Beauty and the Beast is the greatest accomplishment of an era full of great accomplishments, and to copy it frame-for-frame would be pointless, so director Bill Condon doesn’t try. Certainly, his live-action version follows the same plot and includes the same characters. But whereas the original functioned exactly like a Broadway musical—breathless, unmoored from physical limits, not terribly concerned with plot—this new film combines the original, the darker tones of the 1740 fairy tale, and a few new ideas to create a version that deserves a nearly independent spot in the long history of the story.
The plot is as you remember: arrogant prince turned into hideous beast, petals on a rose, must find love to be turned back. Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (Hercules) must have been aware that the major question on the lips of older fans would be “Why?” The answer, of course, is money, and it would be naive to think otherwise. Condon, whose credits include Kinsey, Dreamgirls and Mr. Holmes, chooses to justify his version, firstly, by expanding the story, adding biographical hints to the characters, and even grounding the story in a semi-specific time and place. Elements in the background include plague, war, literacy and even notes of Biblical spice, as Beast (Dan Stevens) mourns the “eternal damnation” awaiting him and his transformed servants if the curse is not lifted.
To adult ears, that adds a note of urgency to their dilemma. The ‘91 film didn’t indicate that anything worse would happen to them than to be stuck that way, and to be really honest, I could think of worse fates than to be an immortal candelabra. It is now specifically stated the objects, including Ewan McGregor as amorous candelabra Lumiere and Sir Ian McKellan as the fussy clock Cogsworth, will become inanimate if the last petal falls; Belle better get on that.
She’s played here by Harry Potter darling Emma Watson, who got a lot more butt-kicking in as Hermoine, but who updates Belle in some important ways. She gets to invent something (even if it is a washing machine), attempt to teach a young girl to read, and get in her own shot at the pompous Gaston (Luke Evans). She also has chemistry with Stevens (Downton Abbey) that doesn’t feel like the product of a fairy tale, but she is still in one, and the parameters only allow her so much room; once she reaches the castle, she is mostly an observer in the story. Her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) has gotten one of the most drastic makeovers, going from a bumbling plot device to an active participant; his skill with machines is, here, imminently artistic and practical. The castle itself bears less resemblance to the standard Disney version and more to the gothic inspirations of the fairy tale; I thought of Jean Cocteau’s classic 1946 French version. The work, of course, is completely stunning; it isn’t a stretch to confidently predict piles of award nominations for make-up, costumes, production design and special effects, as this is easily the most visually stunning Disney update yet. If they add a corresponding area to the theme park and let you just explore it without any additions, I’d want to visit again for that alone.
The movie has expanded the tale considerably, and new material fleshes out the backstories of Belle and Beast, explaining how Belle found herself in that “poor, provincial town” and how Beast became such a miserable sack of greed that the Enchantress (Hattie Morahan) felt the need to put the whammy on him in the first place. These are dark moments, the kind of things that are generally glossed over in Disney features. Meanwhile, every time a petal falls from that rose, the castle is rocked by aftershocks and the servants become more object-like; there’s a moment when Lumiere believes his feather duster paramour (Gugu-Mbatha Raw) has been lost.
There was something of a flap over the fact that Condon, Disney and Josh Gad all but declare Le Fou, Gaston’s simpering sidekick, gay, which is surprising, because we’re dealing with a character who spontaneously composed, performed and sang a Broadway-style musical number about another man’s neck. He was always gay, and if you’re surprised by that it speaks less to anything changing and more to your own attention to detail. What is more interesting than Le Fou’s preferences in who to take to the village dance is how he and Gaston are handled. Gaston in the '91 film was a bully to his core, someone with no redeeming qualities; if he seemed to become more monstrous as the film progresses, he was merely dropping the facade. Here, he seems to have some PTSD, and is openly nostalgic for war, a setting in which any normal rules of society that might trouble such a man would be suspended and his steroid-amped version of masculinity greatly rewarded. Le Fou has gone from an annoying sidekick of dubious necessity to a full character in the story, with his own motivations. Gaston is played by Evans with much less bombast than in the animated version, although that serves him well, as the original was a deliberate caricature. Le Fou and his unrequited crush on Gaston amounts to an abusive relationship. This, of course, is background, as the point of the film is to entertain all ages and not get far into life’s darker details, but the fact that you can reasonably reach these conclusions in a Disney film is notable.
Now, there’s the music. It won’t surprise you to know that some of the classic numbers, particularly “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” lack the breathless, deep-throated energy of the original and don’t stop the show like they did, simply because animation is freeing in ways even the best live-action cannot be. “Belle” is Emma Watson’s best scene as the character, and has improved with her fire injected into it, while the title song is virtually unchanged because you don’t mess with perfection; rumors I shed tears during that bit are unsubstantiated and potentially slanderous. It may be hard to see past nostalgia, but I found myself quite moved by the new numbers, courtesy of original composer Alan Menken and Tim Rice (The Lion King). “Days in the Sun”, in which Emma Thompson’s teapot stands out for a song about the days when they were all human, is sweet and sad, but the standout is “Evermore”, not least because Beast didn’t have his own number. Dan Stevens performs this sequence to a level worthy of an epic opera.
Up until now, Disney’s live-action update machine has either given new spins to classic animated fare (Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent), or tackled movies that haven’t aged as well as your memory thinks (The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon). They could have really fallen on their faces with Beauty. After all, they are adapting their greatest modern success, a film that appeals to near everyone and became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, not a semi-loved kiddie flick from the fallow period between Walt’s own era and The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast is worth a spot on the shelf next to your Blu-Ray of the original, and you can get something a bit different out of both. It is as good as it was possible to get without just starting from scratch, and there’s no reason not to be Disney’s guest for this gorgeous and affecting take on a classic.