Fairy tales are stories that take place in enchanted worlds used to teach a basic moral lessons to children, and in the history of cinema, nobody has told these stories better than Disney. Beauty and the Beast, based on a french fairy tale first published in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, was first released as an animated feature film by Disney in 1991, and has just been remade as a live action feature film by filmmaker Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters), with a screenplay by novelist Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (Hercules).
Beauty and the Beast is, as the film reminds us, a tale old as time, so anyone reading this should all have a fairly clear understanding of what happens within the confines of plot, but just in case, it is the story of a man cursed to live his life as a beast until he finds true love, as punishment for only valuing beauty as skin deep. If he cannot find this love before all the petals fall off a magical rose, he is condemned to live as a beast…forever! So he lives in his magical castle of enchanted nick-knacks (former associates of him, also cursed), waiting for true love, with increasing pessimism. Enter Belle, a village girl looking for a bit of excitement, and boom! A love story. But Belle is pursued by the id of an impotent local alpha male called Gaston, whose true talents lie in ruining everything and making women feel unsafe.
You go into this film with the obvious initial question: why remake this film? The original is a classic, one of the most instantly identifiable animated films of all time, with some incredibly iconic imagery, and a wonderful sense of enchantment. I left the film not knowing if there was a proper answer to this question, however, I left it glad that I saw it. The film is, for all its shortcomings, enchanting. It doesn’t create a formidable legacy to match that of the original, but it certainly does it justice. The music is exquisite, the performances are committed, the film’s inherent sense of humour is sharp and brisk. The sense of magic you enter a disney film hoping for permeates the cinema, and becomes very hard to fault. This is, in essence, a classic disney film, done extremely well.
The songs in the film are raucous and delightful, particularly Gaston’s number in the bar, and the wonderful Be Our Guest, in which the magical potential of the castle is realised in its most dizzying capacity. The music isn’t inherently flawless, there is a musical number in which Emma Watson sings a song with backup by Audra McDonald. Emma Watson isn’t the worst singer we’ve had in musicals in recent years, but it’s certainly not her strongest suit, and putting her side by side with McDonald, one of the most gifted musical theatre performers working in the world, certainly does her voice no favours. This and the opening number lack the vibrancy that inhabit the best of Disney’s music, but they are easily forgivable and the film flows on effortlessly.
The photography within the castle itself is a thing of complete wonder. Inside and around the castle, the camera is almost always moving somewhere, or about to move, in grand, sweeping motions, giving a the giddying sense of enchantment (I refuse to accept this word can be used too much to describe this film) to almost every frame in the castle. When the beast and Belle dance, you feel like the camera, and by proxy, the audience, is waltzing with them. When the mischievous antiques sing to Belle “Be Our Guest”, they are talking as much to us as they are to her. The castle is a place of infinite wonder, and whilst the famous west wing scene leaves a lot to be desired when compared to the scene in the original film, the scenes within the castle are easily the most dynamic of the film, and by the end the scenes outside it feel irrelevant and lethargic.
The leads, played by Dan Stevens and particularly Emma Watson, give generous performances, with Watson lending a fierce intelligence to Belle that has been a welcome addition to the psychology of Disney princesses in more recent years. Luke Evans and Josh Gad are equally impressive as Gaston and his loyal sidekick Le Fou, but the show is stolen by the star studded voice cast behind the castle’s antiquities, including Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Emma Thompson, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Kevin Kline is also fantastic as Belle’s long suffering father.
Beauty and the Beast is perhaps only purposed as a pastiche to the iconic original, however it is a virtuosic display of the filmmaking of (again) enchantment, and an undeniably enjoyable and magical time in the cinema.