Film Review: Beauty and the Beast

The effort to recapture the magic of Disney’s 1991 animated version shows, but this live-action 'Beauty and the Beast' will still be a box-office force.
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The anticipation is high for Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s live-action remake of its 1991 animated hit. The cartoon original is one of the studio’s most critically praised and beloved properties, one of only three animated features to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. And Disney’s recent successful track record with live-action remakes of Cinderella and The Jungle Book suggests the formula is working well. Incredibly lavish, this new Beauty and the Beast will surely delight a large international audience by delivering many of the moments fondly remembered from the original, wrapped in a shiny, state-of-the-art package. But where the 1991 version enchanted with its witty, Broadway-caliber songs and gorgeous 2D animation (enhanced in spots by burgeoning CGI), the 2017 model, with its merging of live actors, motion capture and photorealistic computer wizardry for its fanciful living objects, strains harder to achieve the same magic.

The songs—with a few additions—remain intact, though lead actress Emma Watson, who gained fame from the Harry Potter movies, has a considerably thinner voice than 1991’s Belle, Paige O’Hara. Those clever tunes by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman alone generate great goodwill for the film, even when the showstopper “Be My Guest” must compete with visual excess that seems too determined to top the pleasures and surprises of the cartoon’s big production number. But then, director Bill Condon and his creative team were faced here with a daunting task: replicating with modern-day, 3D-looking CGI what appears so deceptively easy to achieve with hand-drawn animation. You can see the heavy lifting, which makes this Beauty not nearly so light on its feet.

Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos’ screenplay stays true to the general outline of Linda Woolverton’s 1991 script: Lovely young Belle is viewed by her village as eccentric because (gasp!) she loves to read and rejects the overtures of the handsome but ridiculously vain Gaston (Luke Evans, terrific). When her doting father Maurice (Kevin Kline, warmly appealing) is captured by the fearsome Beast (a prince cursed by a sorceress for his arrogance), Belle schemes to take his place, and is soon taken under the wing of the castle’s various talking household objects also victimized by that curse. Very gradually, Belle and the ornery Beast develop a bond that blossoms into mutual respect and love.

That growing affection is the strongest element of the film, thanks largely to Dan Stevens’ amusing and engaging motion-capture work as the brooding creature who slowly opens himself up to renewed human feelings and vulnerability. (Though the press notes don’t say it, the “Downton Abbey” heartthrob’s voice seems manipulated to be deeper.) Watson is nicely feisty in these scenes and in her interactions with the marvelous group of actors assembled for voice duty as the castle crew: Ewan McGregor as the suave French valet/candelabra Lumière, Ian McKellen as butler/mantel clock Cogsworth, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as maid turned feather duster Plumette, Broadway’s Audra McDonald as an opera singer transformed into a huge wardrobe, Stanley Tucci as her maestro turned harpsichord, and most especially Emma Thompson, filling in very ably for the great Angela Lansbury as Cockney housekeeper/teapot Mrs. Potts. Just as animated, though in a sometimes excessively fey way, is Josh Gad (the popular snowman Olaf from Frozen) in the live-action role of Gaston’s dubiously devoted sidekick LeFou (yes, the gay character who’s created such a fuss in Russia…and Alabama).

Sarah Greenwood’s production design and Jacqueline Durran’s costumes add to the visual splendor, but I found the character designs of the clock and candelabra much more expressive in the 1991 animated version. (And, if we’re talking visual magic, nothing beats the amazing 1946 live-action version of the tale by Jean Cocteau). This Beauty and the Beast for the CG age is bound to be a blockbuster, but parents would be well advised to also expose their children to other vintages of the fable.

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