Can the Mona Lisa be improved upon? Absolutely not. But as a work of art, it can be re-imagined and reinterpreted. Anyone presuming to do so will surely be playing with fire, for beloved classics are not to be toyed with lightly. The 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast is a beloved icon of American popular culture that has been revised and re-imagined on stage and now in a live animated version that literally and figuratively fleshes out the characters. And the verdict is…
The new live action Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful visual confection that pays respectful homage to the original, yet also courageously seeks to correct some of the shortcomings of the original. The animated version had some odd plot gaps and overly simplified story developments that were hard to overlook, even for an animated film largely targeted at children. The new film plugs those gaps (what happened to the Beast’s parents and Belle’s mother?), and departs from minor subplots to make the film more believable to an adult audience and yet skillfully does not lose its innocent charms for the wee ones.
Even as it corrects the earlier version, the new film creates new shortcomings. New plot lines seek to clarify, but tend to waste time and diffuse the momentum of the core story. Happily, they are fairly short and don’t sink the film. Emma Watson as Belle provides an overall fine performance, showing off a pretty singing voice. She is at her best when playing opposite a live character. When faced by a CGI/ green screen scenario, however, her performance falls flat, despite her experience from the Harry Potter series. Her reactions to the magical, over the top “Be Our Guest” dining scene were stiff and out of sync with the moment; the animated Belle’s reactions to the fantastical flying foods was a stronger performance. Too bad Director Bill Condon didn’t tease out a bit more joy and spirited enthusiasm.
Kevin Kline does an excellent job as Maurice, Belle’s eccentric tinkerer father. I appreciated that his Maurice wasn’t as bumbling as the animated take on the character. Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou, are an entertaining bromantic comedic duo. (All the brouhaha over LeFou’s sexual orientation – what a tempest in Mrs. Pott’s teapot! – Fear not, children won’t be scarred for life by his sweetly nuanced performance – it’s a non-issue! Worry more about the terrifying wolves, Gaston’s evilness and violence.) LeFou has some of the best lines and almost steals Gaston’s narcissistic self-idolatry pub scene. Merely unlikable in the original, this version reveals Gaston as a truly detestable villain. Similar to real world characters we all may know, Gaston’s narcissism, sense of self entitlement and manipulation of others, along with careless disregard for the rights of others, makes him the true beast all should fear. Undone by his own choices, his demise is alarmingly satisfying.
The Beast is a marvel of live acting, prosthetics, puppetry and CGI. Much to our surprise, actor Dan Stevens successfully helps us all see through the fangs and fur to the humbled and rather charming man within. The ballad he sings as Belle rushes to her father’s side is beautiful and heart-wrenching. Belle’s blooming adoration of Dan Steven’s Beast is a journey that feels authentic. His transformation scene at movie’s end is a bit of a disappointment compared to the animated movie version. There is an unfortunate moment when the scene cuts away to an exterior shot with a glimpse through a window, breaking the intimacy of his resurrection to humanity… why?! This was a bad edit. The Beast’s transformation is the pinnacle of the film and should have been one brave, long shot.
The Rose makes a strong presence. Seriously. It is a powerful force and when each petal falls, this version makes it clear there is a degradation of the already-tortured world of the castle and its tenants. Great addition!
The music is stellar, including new songs and themes arranged by the brilliant Alan Menken, beautifully accentuating the overall grandeur of the film sets and staging, including the enchanted objects, Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Mdme Garderobe (Audra McDonald) who are all as loveable as dear aunties and uncles. Talented actors have only their expressive voices, along with elegantly artistic design, to bring these characters to life. As fanciful feather duster, Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), turns into a rigid object in Lumiere’s arms after the last petal falls, quickly followed by all the other cursed characters, get ready to wipe your eyes.
It would be possible to nitpick other aspects of this film, if one is not open to the potential of the new film. Instead, surrender to its varied charms! This film is a joy to behold – a true work of art that leaves you happy, smiling and humming “Be Our Guest,” or one of Alan Menken’s other treasured compositions, as you leave the theater. And these days, we all need a bit of joy in our hearts at the power of love to triumph over all the ills that may befall us mere mortals.
PS – be sure to wait and watch the closing credits – itself an imaginative and lovely work of film art!
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