“How Does a Moment Last Forever” is one of several new songs composed for Disney’s live-action adaptation of its animated classic, “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s also a subtle nod to the baggage that this production brings with it.
How indeed to take a cartoon loved to the point of obsession, flesh it out with actors who can’t be expected to live up to the two-dimensional protagonists of fans’ imaginations, and open it up to lived-in realism, without losing the pure fantasy of the original? How does a movie last forever, even as it’s deconstructed and reinvented over time?
The answer is: with a mixture of careful deliberation and boldness, both of which are on full display in this pleasingly all-out but reassuringly familiar take on a story that might not have started with Disney’s 1991 movie but, for many, seemed to end there. Emma Watson delivers an alert, solemn turn as Belle, the French country girl with a penchant for reading and inventing. Although Dan Stevens — best known for his recurring role on “Downton Abbey” — is heard more than seen, he lends the Beast just the right ratio of soul to raffish misanthropy.
In fact, it’s Stevens who gets the first scene of “Beauty and the Beast,” when as a vain prince he’s being garishly made up before he appears at an opulently appointed ball. The ensuing fete is a lilting swirl of cream-colored gowns and a soaring aria delivered by Audra McDonald (accompanied on the harpsichord by Stanley Tucci). But the prince is not a nice guy, and when a wizened visitor begs to be allowed in by offering him a perfect rose, he cruelly casts her aside. She in turn casts a spell that turns him into the lurking, leonine title character who can turn human again only once he learns how to love and be loved.
The fact that it’s the damsel doing the saving in “Beauty and the Beast” — not once but twice, if you count Belle’s kindly father, Maurice (a sweetly affecting Kevin Kline), who runs into trouble midway through the film — gives extra verve to the presence of Watson. The actress has become a feminist icon, thanks to her days as Hermione in the Harry Potter movies as much as her off-screen political activism. Like another Emma in last year’s “La La Land,” Watson may not possess a killer set of pipes, but her singing (which sounds like it’s been technologically sweetened here) is serviceable enough to get the job done.
It’s her solid, capable persona that take pride of place in “Beauty and the Beast,” which is as much about its lush French provincial costumes and settings as it is about story and character. Belle’s opening number, during which she sings of longing and intellectual restlessness while swaying through her village’s market, is an eye-catching mélange of flowers, fabrics, textures and riotously bright springtime colors.
In addition to setting the stage for confections to come, that opening sequence also introduces one of “Beauty and the Beast’s” most beloved and be-loathed characters: Gaston, Belle’s would-be suitor, played with fatuous relish by a wonderfully game Luke Evans. His big number — delivered while dancing and fighting on tabletops with his adoring aide-de-camp LeFou (Josh Gad) — is a giddy, amusing high point, and welcome respite from the gloom of the Beast’s Gothic-slash-rococo castle. The film’s biggest sequence, set to the song “Be Our Guest,” revisits the Busby Berkeley design elements of the 1991 version, here elaborated with even more anachronistically psychedelic neon and a punched-up, disco-worthy color palette.
Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”) never met a camera he didn’t want to swoop, swirl and otherwise move around his characters in delirious circles. The effect can be visually exhausting — especially in Imax — and when he throws out wads of confetti or springing pieces of ribbon at the audience for the second or third time, it begins to feel as if he’s covering up for his lack of instinct for staging. Alan Menken, who composed the original songs, has enlisted lyricist Tim Rice for a batch of new tunes, none of which is particularly memorable, but none of which is objectionable, either (the orchestrations, meanwhile, are reliably swelling and lush). The animated housekeeping items — Mrs. Potts the teapot, Lumière the candelabra and Cogsworth the clock — are all brought to convincing life by way of digital magic and terrific voice work by Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen, respectively.
McDonald’s and Tucci’s characters — a wardrobe and harpsichord — have less to do but are on hand for the film’s grand finale, made all the more gratifying by the emotions that have been plumbed before. By beefing up the presence of Belle’s father — and the absence of her mother — the filmmakers have given Belle as much shadow material as the diffident Beast, who starts out as her captor and winds up her soul mate.
This “Beauty and the Beast” isn’t predicated on starry-eyed romance or animal attraction, but the solace of mutual loss and understanding, which makes it all the sweeter. Although the Beast is an entirely digital creation, based in part on Jean Cocteau’s groundbreaking 1946 silent film, Stevens imbues his hauteur and fanged hostility with pathos and arch humor. Joining Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester as yet another handsome dude in a bad mood, Stevens’ Beast provides the right kind of foil for Watson’s spirited, courageous heroine, who in one of two seriously frightening sequences fights off a snarling pack of wolves.
The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it meet-cute moment for two gay characters is part of this “Beauty and the Beast’s” larger sense of expansiveness, wherein exteriors fall away, inner essences come to the fore and true love ensues. And what in this big, boffo, ball-gowned world could be wrong with that?
|Disney via the Associated Press This image released by Disney shows Dan Stevens as The Beast, left, and Emma Watson as Belle in a live-action adaptation of the animated classic “Beauty and the Beast.”|
There's something very, very off about all those chipper household objects in Disney's expensive, soulless new live-action retelling of Beauty and the Beast. But we don't realize quite what it is until "Be Our Guest," the intended showstopper at the film's midway point, in which all these transmogrified servants band together to make Belle, their lovely young prisoner, feel like royalty.
You of course remember what this was like in the 1991 animated film, with that cabaret of plates and forks in high-stepping kick-lines that crossed every inch of the screen, as Lumiere the talking candelabra carried us along with his big eyes and the expressiveness of his elastic, wax-and-metal body. It was one of those perfect, much-vaunted "Disney moments": Lumiere and his friends, after all, were wholly Mouse House creations, meant to help justify the film's existence distinct from Jean Cocteau's magisterial 1946 version, and their daffy, colorful presence in the brooding French fairy tale injected just enough comic energy to let keep things ticking along as sharp as Cogsworth's clockwork.
But under director Bill Condon, the new Lumiere's body is a single shade of murky CGI bronze featuring a molded candle-socket that — amid the darkness of the Beast's castle — is barely recognizable as a face, out of which streams Ewan McGregor's atrocious French accent. He's still eager to please, prostrating his flames in gleeful servitude — but his joints creak noisily as he moves, and his eyes seem to lack pupils: He has been drained of his humanity in the name of "realism."
Mrs. Potts, the genteel teapot matron voiced this time by Emma Thompson, fares slightly better, in that her face is clearly painted onto the side of her fine china (minus the iconic spout-nose of Angela Lansbury's animated incarnation). But when that penciled eye winks at the camera in horrifying IMAX-vision, we realize that our demand for Disney remakes is the 21st century's witch-curse that dooms these once-lovable thingamabobs to a different kind of bodily prison.
As if wary of unleashing any more monsters than it already has, the new Beauty otherwise treats the script and camerawork of the animated version as sacred text. Look, here's the little town filled with little people, every day like the one before. Here's ol' Beastie (Dan Stevens), the prince transformed by a witch until he can find true love. Stevens is fine in the role, or so one assumes: he's heavily obscured by his digitized mask of horns and fur, which can't possibly allow for the tragic contradiction of savage-sweet emotions Jean Marais once brilliantly conveyed, under heavy makeup, in the Cocteau version.
Emma Watson, who rose to superstardom in Harry Potter's more convincing CGI-magic world, certainly looks the part of Belle with that yellow dress and the blue-and-white provincial rags that she gets to twirl in a computerized meadow, The Sound of Music-style. But her vocal chops aren't soaring enough to support the weight of the film, and her performance is eternally distant, even when she should be plugged into the wonder. There's not much of a difference between the spacey, lost-in-thought Belle who wanders through her village in the opening number, the Belle who selflessly sacrifices herself to the Beast's prison in order to free her father from his clutches, and the Belle who later falls in love with her captor and his magic friends.
The bookish maiden is still a prized object d'art for vain war hero Gaston, played with a smart, practiced nastiness by Luke Evans — in his braggadocious delivery, he recognizes how well the villain's oafish hyper-masculinity translates to our current moment. While Gaston plots to wed Belle by hook or crook, Josh Gad steals the film as his sidekick LeFou, who represents a progressive step for Disney: their first big-hearted evil lackey. LeFou goes along with his leader's schemes while bearing a giant, dopey grin on his face; he legitimately cares for his sick boss's well-being, and shoots him looks of longing mid-song. When he finally does find love, it's in the form of a split-second dance with an unnamed man, an image that could only shock people predisposed to be shocked.
Very little is new, apart from some superfluous backstories and the occasional household object. But everything old feels empty and dull. It seems like it would be more fun to skip the film altogether and just install the sets at Disney World, where a Belle impersonator in a familiar yellow dress could snap photos with children who only want to confirm that the film in their minds could exist in real life.
Disney has many more tales-as-old-as-time heading to live revivals. This in itself is not necessarily cause for alarm: Last year's The Jungle Book was marvelous entertainment, using its immersive technology to strike just the right high-stakes tone, and even the somewhat staid Cinderella found a newly elegant sensibility in its tale of inner beauty. But those two films had the advantage of varied takes on animated source material that was more than five decades old. In contrast, Beauty's chief directive is not to conjure wonder, but nostalgia — in service of a generation trying to meme its childhood back from the enchanted castle of the past. There must be more than this provincial life.
Beauty and the Beast movie review: A fairytale that is never too old to revisit
Beauty and the Beast
Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad
Recently, we heard that Emma Watson let go of La La Land for Beauty and the Beast. We called her a fool, we laughed at her misfortune then.
Look there she goes! That girl is strange, no question
Givin’ up an Oscar for this bore!
But she did no such thing,
Her fortunes straight as string
This film is a beauty, you should be sure!
At the outset, Beauty and the Beast might remind you of Cinderella, another live action adaptation of an old Disney classic, but the parity is pointless as Beauty and the Beast moves on to reveal a stunning musical treat for your eyes, ears and heart.
Sure, the 1991 Oscar-nominated animated film works as a skeleton, but the pasts of the characters—introduced in this version—add flesh and the music blood and the rich sets, gorgeous costumes and the grand production form the flawless skin, binding everything together and bringing to life the classic fairy tale.
I could be wrong but I think a lot of us willed this film into existence. We campaigned that Emma be cast as Belle, a beautiful young girl in a small town in 18th century France who, unfortunately, also has a brain—a fact her townspeople cannot digest. Emma, who is also attributed with the same two qualities in real life, was, of course, the only choice for the part and our collective conscience didn’t fail us.
You saw the doe-eyed Belle drawn by an artist on screen all those years ago, but it still escapes me how Emma could be just as perfect for it. She has Belle’s stern, confident charm, but is the sweetest petal of rose when you need her to be.
Of course, that gorgeous, very familiar voice makes you think it is a friend, but it is so perfect that you discard that thought. All her three songs in the film evoke a different mood. She dreamily hopes for an adventure in ‘Belle’, the opening number, strikes a sombre note in ‘How Does a Moment Last Forever’, and is just a girl falling in love in ‘Something There’.
Dan’s Prince Adam is the first, very painted face we see and we hate him instantly as he ridicules the enchantress who ultimately curses him and his castle. But even from under his thick beast-suit and from on top of his stilts, he manages to change our hearts about him. His booming voice and the kindness in his body work despite his non-expressive, furry face.
As for the changes from the original, there are quite a few very subtle, but significant ones. Belle’s father, Maurice, was a town idiot in the original and we couldn’t care less if he got eaten by wolves. But this time, Kevin Kline plays a man with a painful past, raising the stakes further when he gets taken prisoner by the Beast.
There is not an entire library in the town just for Belle and she visits Père Robert, the only considerate man in town who lets her borrow any of his ten odd books. Belle is not only an avid reader herself but also tries to teach other girls to read.
Both the lead characters are given short back-stories that, though unnecessary, add immensely to the film. Prince Adam gets a five-second-long scene from his childhood, wrapped in a song that leaps over to the present. For Belle, an entirely new magical element is conjured.
Then of course, their is Le Fou -- the first openly gay character in any Disney film ever.
But what makes this film more than just another fairytale with extra CGI, pretty dresses and a happy ending, are the songs. What could one do to give the already-loved songs a new life? We will have to learn from director Bill Condon. His aesthetic has come a long way since the days of Breaking Dawn (Parts 1 and 2).
Josh Gad and Luke Evans make you want to turn into a shotgun-wielding hooligan for just one night with ‘Gaston’. You want to tap with them on bar tables, create horrible rhymes and simply sing panegyrics in the glory of the town brute. That song makes having fun with a bunch of idiots look so appealing.
Beauty and the Beast has always had a special place in my heart. No, not because I watched it as a girl; I watched it as a full grown woman for the first time. The music and the idea of falling in love with a human, and not his looks, always seemed like the kind of fairytale I didn’t want to find faults with. And years later, how many faults did I find this time?