The other day, I was watching a video from Screen Junkies doing a pageant-like ranking of all existing Disney film princesses. They used a variety of categories such as intelligence, talent, singing ability, reliability and quality of animal sidekick(s). While I was completely onboard on with the controversial number one, things at the bottom end were much more interesting. The lowest ranked ladies were in fact the original three princesses: Snow White, Cinderella and Sleep Beauty. Despite being regarded as classics, people rightly pointed out they had a lot of flaws. I think that shows how much the idea of the a Disney princess has evolved and progressed over time. I feel like it’s been the same with Disney’s new wave of live-action remakes. If we’re letting Maleficent into the party, their effort first was without doubt the worst, flawed despite drawing from a classic. Yet through each new film they have improved with 2016's Jungle Book being the best to date. Disney has learnt from its mistakes, that its audience expects meaningful content just as much as dazzling visuals. With that, we arrive at Beauty and the Beast and yet again, the bar has been raised by bringing the emotional story of the tale to life just as much as its colourful characters.
A French prince punished for his vanity now lives hidden in his castle as a Beast (Dan Stevens – The Guest), cursed until he can find true love in that form. When the young Belle (Emma Watson – Harry Potter) agrees to stay with him in exchange for her father’s freedom could she be the one to break the curse before it’s too late?
Now most classical Disney animations are fairy tale stories masquerading as musicals by occasionally bursting into song. This Beauty and the Beast is a musical masquerading as a Disney story and a dam good one too. Whether it’s in recreating the familiar 90's favourites or its many enjoyable new songs everything feels concurrent to the underlying narrative and several musical sections flow effortlessly into each other. This all gives the film so much more appeal to older audiences and in fact, you really don’t need to be a Disney fan to appreciate the quality on screen or be familiar with the story to understand it. While the CG wizardry of Lumiere (Ewan McGregor – Moulin Rouge!) and company on Be Our Guest is dazzling its the human cast members that really make the film stand out as a loving, meaningful and purposeful adaptation. The opening Belle number makes La La Land look like blah blah bland with the entire town erupting into tuneful life. Or the rowdy Gaston number feeling like it’s taking place live on the West End. All principle actors and actresses vocally impress with their warbling but Emma Watson is magnificent. You could listen to her sing all night and she really feels like embodiment of the Belle many have fondly grown up with. The central romantic story is very well-told with a greater focus on the intellectual connection between Belle & Beast. Even simple details showing Beast coming around to the merits of romantic fiction really help to the romance to feel like it’s developing naturally rather than for plot requirements. However, there is a small trade off in all this towards the booster seat section of the audience. While there’s still a good deal of visual wonder and magic for your own little Chips & Chipettes to enjoy this film is much less orientated towards younger viewers than say the Jungle Book adaption. That’s not to say they’ll dislike it, but significant sections won’t hold their attention so closely and some may even get bored.
So far, all of these Disney live-action adaptations have excelled with their visuals. This is no exception. Everything on screen looks absolutely magical from the stark Highgarden to Winterfell contrast of Belle’s village, and Beast’s castle to the elaborate crumbling castle interiors and the many animated object cast members. Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) has really got the blend right between preserving the fantasy elements of the fairy tale story while giving the visuals a distinctly more realistic feel then their animated counterparts (which is generally the entire point of a live action adaptation). At first, I wasn’t sold on the look of Dan Steven’s Beast; he seemed too mild and not nearly beastly enough. However, this is both intentional and effective. His softened facial features make the idea of Belle warming to him more believable and allow for a much more drastic transformation when “beast mode” comes out in places like the wolf fight. Some sections are still less effective than others. In fact, it’s the bigger action scenes of the final act that see the film dip somewhat; the Castle fight and final Beast/Gaston showdown. They make it feel more like a generic CG fantasy affair for being far too over-cluttered or sacrificing the character emotion for one-liners and Beast leaping across castle towers. They’re still enjoyable but unlike the rest of the film, come across with notable room for improvement.
Now, this is officially the dumbest subject matter I’ve everhad to address.... concerns over Josh Gad’s Le Fou being portrayed as gay being inappropriate. Yep, you guessed it, they’re completely unfounded.... but ok, in utter seriousness, if you’re a parent reading this with concerns over your young child’s exposure to such a subject matter, it’s usage is merely for the odd subtle joke that will go completely over your kid’s heads. Even if Le Fou is gay, he’s staying firmly in the closet, as should your concerns. Okay, let’s never do that again.
I’ve loved Emma Watson’s transition into being an adult actress but this may well be her best performance in or out of Hogwarts. She’s every bit the lovable heroine, strong and independent when she wants to be, emotional and vulnerable when she needs to be. Watson makes every step of Belle’s journey a delight. Although he spends most of the film looking rather grizzly, Dan Stevens succeeds in bringing the human out from under the beast, although some of his dialogue delivery could have been better. Luke Evans as Gaston contributes some of the best comic relief while still becoming the villain when required. A notable mention goes to Kevin Kline as Belle’s father Maurice for making his smaller role stand out much more than it should. Of the voice casting, Emma Watson’s Mrs Potts and McGregor’s Lumiere are the star attractions while the likes of Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (yep, 2013's Belle), Audra McDonald and the aforementioned McKellen all contribute nicely.
If this is the direction Disney will taking, then let them keep rolling through the back catalogue for a makeover. This is not a cash-grabbing rehash but adding new value in story, spectacle and delivery..... A tale as old as time, lovingly told for a new generation; Beauty and the Beast.