“I never thanked you for saving my life.” ~ Belle
“I never thanked you for not leaving me to be eaten by wolves.” ~ Beast
“If she is the one to break the spell, you must finally learn to love.” ~ Lumiere
“Well of course he can talk! It’s all he ever does!” ~ Cogsworth
“The master’s not as terrible as he appears.” ~ Mrs. Potts
“I’m coming for you, Beast!” ~ Gaston
“My dear Belle, you’re so ahead of your time. This is a small village, and it’s small minded, as well. But small also means safe.” ~ Maurice
“You take me as your prisoner, and now you want to have dinner with me? Are you insane?” ~ Belle
“Think of the one thing that you’ve always wanted. See it in your mind’s eye and feel it in your heart.” ~ Beast
In 1991, Disney released their animated version of Beauty & The Beast, a musical take on the fairy tale that I would argue is the best animated film they ever did. It featured the tale of a young restless woman who sacrifices her freedom to save her father, becoming the prisoner of a beast in an enchanted castle, with the two characters bantering as they got to know each other. The film also subverted the traditional animated fairy tale motif by having the handsome local lad end up revealed as the true monster of the story. In recent years, Disney has been adapting some of their animated films into live action counterparts, such as Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, and The Jungle Book, while turning Sleeping Beauty in a different direction by giving us a sympathetic villainess in Maleficent. Now we have a live action take on Beauty & The Beast that follows the animated version fairly closely, adding in an extra character here or there, as well as extra songs. And while I generally dislike musicals, that doesn’t apply here.
The prologue tells us of a French prince who coldly dismisses an elderly woman seeking shelter, only to discover too late that she’s an enchantress. Seeking to teach him a lesson in humility, she places a curse on him, transforming him into a hideous beast and enchanting his castle and staff, all of whom find themselves turned into household objects. And for good measure she puts a time limit on the hex, which will last forever if he can’t earn the love of another by the time the last petal falls on the enchanted rose she leaves behind. Needless to say, this leaves the beast a wee bit annoyed.
Some years later, we meet Belle (Emma Watson), a curious and intelligent girl living in a quiet French village with her inventor father Maurice (Kevin Kline). She’s bored of the small minded routine of the village, yearning for adventure. And she finds the romantic attentions of a former soldier turned hunter and perpetual egomaniac, Gaston (Luke Evans) to be more than a little irritating. After Maurice disappears during a trip to sell his goods, Belle follows his trail to a mysterious castle, where he is being held by the Beast (Dan Stevens). She offers herself in her father’s place as his hostage.
The original animated film adapted the fairy tale into a musical fantasy form, which later became a Broadway musical, part of a pattern of Broadway over the last couple of decades to reconfigure movies into stage musicals (one thinks Broadway producers have run out of ideas). The idea of adapting that stage musical into a live film was considered for a time, but instead, with previous adaptations of animated films into live action, the decision was made to do the same, using the animated film as its source material. Bill Condon (Gods And Monsters, Kinsey, Chicago) was brought on board as director. He also had a hand in the Twilight films, directing the last two of that series, but we won’t hold that against him. Condon’s experience with Chicago is likely the most relevant for him, given the musical genre both share, and given the need for pacing, choreography, and splendor that the genre requires.
The screenplay is based on the 1991 screenplay, but was also worked on by two other writers in pre-production, Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. The story follows the original film closely, with some tweaks and additions here and there. It also preserves the original songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, as well as Menken’s score, while Menken returned for additional scoring here, and a handful of new songs co-written with Tim Rice. It’s a wise thing to stick close to the original film’s storyline, which turned the traditional Disney fairy tale on its head by having the hero saved by the heroine, and by having the villain look very much like you’d have expected the traditional Disney hero to look. The story emphasizes the shifting relationship between Belle and the Beast, her strength of character, his gradual redemption, and the true ugliness of narcissism where Gaston is concerned. Along the way it weaves in mystery, Gothic moodiness, and a rich sense of humour, as well as moments of tender poignancy, some of which you already see coming, but others that are drawn out of the expanded backgrounds of both Belle and the Beast.
The production was largely done in studio sets in the UK, and the result brings to life an enchanted (and largely foreboding at first) castle, the forests around it, the hexed servants, and the quaint French village life in different ways. Some of that is CGI- the servants cursed into anthromorphic household items, for instance, would be a combination of CGI and voice work performance. They look more realistic than their animated counterparts; these objects wouldn’t look out of place in an antique shop when they’re still, but once they start talking, you’re not looking at a household object. Costuming and set design make the film a visual feast, rendering close to the look of the original film, particularly with the way the Beast looks, or Belle’s choice of clothing.
The cast fit their roles well. Josh Gad plays Gaston’s sidekick LeFou as bumbling, much too loyal (to a point), and over the top. He’s all too eager to just take the mistreatment Gaston hands out, and spends too much time bolstering his ego. There’s a twist you might have known about in advance, which is a different spin from the animated version. Lefou is less of a weasel and a bit brighter than his animated counterpart, occasionally trying to pull Gaston back from a bad decision. Kevin Kline gets to play Maurice, who in the animated version is more eccentric (and shorter). His take on Belle’s father is protective but noble, and world weary and a bit melancholy. Kline gives the character a wonderfully poignant sensibility, particularly as the film heads towards its conclusion, and his Maurice proves to be resourceful and wry.
Stanley Tucci plays a new character added into the mix, Maestro Cadenza, the court composer who’s been turned into a harpsichord, and he gives the role a touch of class. Cadenza does have a connection to a previously established character- Madame de Gardrobe, the wardrobe of the animated film, an opera singer who happens to be his wife. Here she’s played by Broadway veteran Audra McDonald as marvelously larger than life. Another character from the original film, the housemaid transformed into a feather duster (and lover of a certain candlestick), appears as well. Plumette, as she’s called, is played by the actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The actress gives her vocal performance a romantic mood. Hattie Morahan appears as the Enchantress, the role expanded from being a prologue presence to turning up here and there through the film in an unexpected way. She's largely quiet, but ever watchful.
Emma Thompson takes the motherly role of Mrs. Potts, the head of the kitchen before the curse, who has found herself transformed into a tea pot. She gives the character the same sort of no-nonsense take charge spirit that Angela Lansbury did in her vocal take on the role in the animated film, not minding the idea of standing up to her overly gruff boss. Ian McKellan is an inspired choice as the brusque head of the household, Cogsworth, who has found himself transformed into a mantle clock. He’s loyal and fussy, and his constant arguing with Lumiere is a treat to watch, as it was the first time around. McKellan gets the character just right. Lumiere himself gets so many of the good lines, and it was another inspired choice to have Ewan McGregor play the charming ladies man turned candelabra. He’s a romantic flirt, brave and charging headlong into trouble, but always with an eye for an attractive lady, even if she has turned into a feather duster.
Luke Evans has that Hollywood leading man look to him, which he’s used before, as the heroic Bard in two of The Hobbit films, or as Dracula in Dracula Untold. He’s well cast here as Gaston, with chiselled good looks that quickly give way to rampant narcissism, self absorbed stroking of his own ego, an obliviousness to reality, and an underlying malice. The animated film gave the character the general looks you’d have expected out of their classic princes in their fairy tale adaptations back in the day before quickly showing him up to be a dimwitted egomaniac (it only took all of one sentence out of Gaston’s mouth to start seeing him for the jerk he was). The same applies here- Evans gives us a Gaston who’s full of himself, a chauvinist who thinks little of a woman thinking for herself. Really, he thinks little at all, because Gaston isn’t the brightest guy out there. And at the same time, there’s a nastiness in the character that Evans brings out so well, matching the animated version. Gaston is arrogance writ large, a sort of reflection of the arrogance that brought down a curse on the young prince, but unlike the Beast, there can be no redemption for him. As Belle says late in the film, Gaston is the real monster of the story.
Dan Stevens is best known for his role on Downton Abbey, which I’ve never seen, and the same applies for his current role on the series Legion. So this is the first time I’ve seen him in anything. He was a good choice as the Beast, which is part makeup and costuming (with surely some CGI thrown in along the way, because he’s taller as the Beast than he is in his human form). But it’s the actor who gives the character his heart, his personality, and his soul. The arrogance of the prince whose callous dismissal brings down a curse on himself and his home gives way to the anger, despair, and bitterness of a man transformed into what he sees as a monster. The anger and menace is how we first see him, here and there in the shadows, but behind all that is a wounded soul, brought down to humility. The gradual evolution of his relationship with Belle- first from accepting her as a substitute prisoner for her father, than to saving her life and falling for her- also follows his shifting as a character, out of despair, into accepting responsibility for his own actions and ultimately into giving up that what he wants most. He might look like a monster, but the story makes a good man out of him, someone capable of mercy to those who come to do him harm.
Emma Watson of course is best known to audiences for her role as Hermione in the Harry Potter series, but that doesn’t factor into how we see her here. She instead immerses herself into the role completely, giving Belle the innate intelligence, curiosity, resourcefulness, and spirit of the character. There’s a restlessness in Belle when we first meet her, a yearning for something more than the village life she finds herself in- and the disregard most of the villagers have where she’s concerned. The way she relates to her father is believable and affectionate, which makes her act of sacrifice, offering herself as a prisoner in her father’s place, entirely understandable. Her initial revulsion at the Beast aside (first impressions aren’t that good when the guy’s holding your dad hostage), she proves to be fearless and defiant regardless. And when she gets a chance to escape, after he’s saved her life, she instead saves him, takes care of him, and a great shift in their relationship begins. The actress brings all of this into her performance, shares great chemistry with her leading man, and gives Belle heart, poignancy, and strength as the story goes along.
Is the new live action adaptation as good as its animated counterpart? No, but that’s a high bar to catch up to; the 1991 film was as near to perfect as a film can be. Yet it stands out so very well on its own, proving to be entertaining in its own right, and a thoroughly enjoyable film. It is a lavishly filmed story with heart, humour, poignancy, and thrills, one that will tug at your heart strings while leaving you amused. Bearing in mind that I generally hate musicals, I found myself grinning more than once during showstopper tunes like Be Our Guest, but it’s the story, and the dynamics of characters, particularly the leads, that make this film so appealing. Beauty & The Beast has heart and soul, and it's well worth seeing.