The 1991 Disney animated version of Beauty and the Beast held pride of place amongst my childhood VHS collection, and was on high rotation alongside Aladdin and Fantasia during those halcyon days of the early ’90s. A much simpler time.
Beauty‘s exceptional music – the title track is perhaps the best number written for any Disney film – and the charm of the interspecies romance were equally captivating. It ticked all the right boxes and, subsequently, was a widely celebrated movie.
The classic tale Beauty and the Beast, written by Jeace de Beaumontnne-Marie Leprin in 1740, touches on many themes still relevant to young people of today – the millennial generation. It taps into the desire to escape their home towns and see the world, to fall in love with someone higher up the socio-economic ladder, to fall for “beastly” men that they can try and fix, and also to have much of their daily routine achieved by sentient homewares that, when dutifully called upon, can hold stirring six-part harmonies whilst engaged in the complex minutiae of elegantly staged choreography.
It’s no surprise that Disney should choose Beauty and the Beast as the next of its live action remakes, following the financial and creative success of last year’s The Jungle Book. The special effects of this futuristic world in which we find ourselves, are truly a thing of wonder. The Beast himself – that cruel and narcissistic Prince that refuses to show compassion toward an old lady seeking shelter from the storm and is promptly punished through magic – can now exist on screen as a life-like creature, rather than a weird and unconvincing array of make-up, false teeth and animatronics.
In director Bill Condon’s new, and extremely faithful, live action remake of the 1991 animated musical, we again meet our feisty and independent heroine Belle. Here the small-town bibliophile is played in a note-perfect performance by Emma Watson (both musically and dramatically). She has a love-hate relationship with the small French town in which she has grown up, has read all the books in the rather stark local library, and is ridiculed and outcast for her intellectualism. Her father Maurice (Kevin Kline), an artist and tinkerer, is supportive of her individuality. If putting up with the town’s whispering was not enough, Belle must contend with handsome and narcissistic bonehead Gaston (Luke Evans), who is intent on obtaining the unobtainable Belle to be his bride. Gaston is aided, with some reluctance, by his loyal, flaming and seemingly closeted sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad).
On their way to a market, Maurice and his horse Philippe become lost in the darkened woods and attacked by wolves. They make it to the grounds of the cursed Prince’s castle and Maurice takes shelter within.
As we have learned from the prologue, the enchanted castle is home to not only the Prince/Beast (Dan Stevens) but also his staff, who have all been transformed into talking objects – a candelabra maître d’ named Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth the clock (Sir Ian McKellen), the harpsichord Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), Mrs Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson), and so on. Just like their royal master, they have also been punished. Upon the casting of her spell, the enchantress gave the Beast a rose. When the final petal wilts and falls, his and the staff’s mutations will be permanent. However, if he can love and find someone to fall in love with him in return, the spell will be broken. In this Twilight world we live in, romance between girl and wolf-bear man seems entirely possible, something for which the kiddies can wholeheartedly and whimsically barrack.
Understandably alarmed at the sight of a talking teacup, Maurice flees the castle’s grounds but not before stopping to pick a white rose for Belle. The Beast captures him and throws him in a cell for his thievery. Fleet-footed Philippe dashes home alone, alerting Belle to her father’s misfortune. She swiftly rides to the Castle, meets the Beast and agrees to take her father’s place as a prisoner.
With a female finally in their midst, Lumière and the rest of the staff see an opportunity to break their curse – and Cogsworth is ticking! So the furniture, cutlery etcetera start working their match-making skills to see if the pretty young Belle could fall for the strangely attractive Beast. As you might assume, even with the most limited knowledge of how Disney films tend to play out, romance blossoms – whether by organic means or textbook Stockholm Syndrome. We may never know.
Buoyed by a committed and largely British cast, Beauty and the Beast weaves enough visual brilliance, comic moments and catchy tunes to justify its existence. It’s every bit the magical ride a film-goer could hope for. If you’re a kid, it’s no doubt a wonderfully spellbinding experience, and if you grew up with the 1991 animation, then it’s overflowing with nostalgia.
As much as we might bemoan Disney’s new endeavour, which is a long-term plan to turn every one of their animated classics into live-action spectacles (there’s about 22 slated remakes in the pipeline, from The Lion King and Mulan, to Emma Stone’s upcoming appearance as the titular villain in Cruella). But there’s something to be said for what modern technology can bring to these fantastical tales. In the case of Beauty and the Beast, it’s a $160m budget (the original cost $25m) that can turn the Beast into a lifelike (and surprisingly sexy) creation with a flowing mane and blues eyes as deep and beguiling as the Pacific Ocean. It can also make talking, loveable and photo-realistic characters out of the contents of a Harrods catalogue.
Condon’s film is almost a scene-by-scene remake of the 1991 version, and includes all the best songs, each realised with flair and an eye for classic cinematic choreography. The new songs, while solid, don’t quite have the timeless melodic thrust of the originals, and stick out like a talking candlestick. But they’re not terrible. Other new elements work surprisingly well. The backstory given to Belle’s mother is especially poignant.
Interesting, also, is the decision to make LeFou a homosexual. Gad plays the part with relish, sinking his teeth into every camp wink, longing stare at Gaston or piece of Disney-approved innuendo. Much has been made of the sexuality of the character, with Malaysia coming very close to banning the film. Talk about an overreaction. LeFou’s character might be gay, yes, but the sexuality on screen is incredibly tame. It’s remarkable that it would occur to anyone to barricade the film’s release. It’s a welcome step from Disney, but still a subtle one. Kids will return to this Beauty and the Beast when they’re in high school and the penny will drop. “Oh, LeFou likes Gaston. Like like likes.” Let’s hope there’s more gay characters in future adaptations. It’s time to confirm those rumours about Timon and Pumbaa.
The casting in Beauty and the Beast is entirely on fleek. Kline, brilliant in everything he touches, is perfect as Maurice, and Evans takes to Gaston’s over-the-top ego-centrism like a fish to water. The supporting “objects”, from McGregor to McKellen and Thompson, are all as fine and effortless as you would expect. Everyone is an assured singer and the set-pieces, especially ‘Be Our Guest’ (famously a cover of The Simpsons number ‘See My Vest’) are realised with scintillating visual splendour.
Stevens, who spends the majority of the film as a CGI bear-pig man, brings an endearing mix of innocence and ferocity to the cursed Prince. The Downton Abbey star is so charming and lovely in Beast mode, that Belle struggles to hide her disappointment at the film’s conclusion. Belle wanted Beast action, and says as much in the film’s final moments. Hey Disney, here’s a sequel idea. Belle pays off Enchantress to reinstate curse. Thank me later.