BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Bill Condon

Stars: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Nathan Mack, Hattie Morahan.
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Disney seem intent on remaking their back catalogue of classic animated films into live action films, combining the familiar stories with state of the art special effects to bring them to a brand-new generation. We have had 101 Dalmatians, Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon, which have all been enjoyable enough and have remained faithful to the original. And now we get this remake of the beloved classic 1991 animated film Beauty And The Beast.
The classic dark fairy tale about a spirited young woman who falls in love with a beast is inspired by Gabrielle-Suzanne Babot de Villeneuve’s 18th century fairy tale La Belle et la Bete. The tale has been filmed many times before, most notably by French filmmaker Jean Marais in 1946. The Disney version in 1991 incorporated some catchy tunes from the team of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, including the Oscar winning Be Our Guest, some superb visuals and a strong vocal cast. It was the first animated film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. This lavish $160 million live action remake had a lot to live up to, but fortunately it gets it right. Apart from a few tweaks, it remains reasonably faithful to the animated original.
The story essentially remains the same. Once upon a time there lived a pampered, self-absorbed and arrogant prince (played by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) who lived in a lavish castle. He had a legion of loyal servants who catered to his every whim. He also held lavish balls. One night a haggard old woman sought shelter from a fierce storm, offering a single rose in return for his hospitality. But the prince disdainfully turned her away. The woman was an enchantress, who cast a spell over the prince and the castle, transforming him into a beast. The servants within the castle are similarly cursed and transformed into inanimate household objects. To reverse the spell beast has to find love and also prove worthy of being loved in return before the last petal falls from the magic rose. Otherwise he is doomed to forever remain a beast.
Enter the feisty and beautiful Belle (Emma Watson), a spirited an intelligent young woman. A voracious reader, she dreams of romance and adventure away from the small provincial village of Villeneuve. She is the daughter of Maurice (Kevin Kline), a decent and kindly make of intricate music boxes. Belle also fobs off the amorous attention of the arrogant and boorish Gaston (Luke Evans), a former soldier who declares his intention of marrying Belle. Preferring her independence though she has other ideas. Gaston is accompanied by his sidekick Le Fou (Josh Gad, who voiced Olaf in Frozen), who constantly fawns over him.
While travelling through the nearby woods one day, Maurice is attacked by wolves. He stumbles upon the beast’s foreboding and gloomy castle and takes refuge. The beast locks him in his dungeon. Belle goes looking for Maurice, and when she finds out what has happened to him she willingly trades place with him, giving up her freedom for his. Her actions catch the interest of the beast. He is enchanted by her intelligence and attitude, and she begins to sense the humanity beneath his horrific external appearance.
Maurice returns home to Villeneuve with stories of his encounter with the beast, but his fantastical claims fall largely on deaf ears. Only Gaston and Le Fou agree to help him, but he has his own agenda. Ironically he proves to be the real beast here given his subsequent actions in trying to kill Maurice and leading an angry mob into the castle to destroy the beast.
The film has an empowering message that true beauty comes from within and that you sometime need to look beneath the surface. The film has been written by Stephen Chobsky (The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, etc) and Ewan Spiliotopoulos, who has scripted a lot of straight to DVD Disney titles, as well as the live action fantasy The Huntsman: Winter’s War, etc.
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Watson has been establishing a solid career outside of the Harry Potter franchise with some solid roles in more independent features. Here she makes for a strong, independent and appealing heroine. As the titular beast, Stevens is buried under layers of make-up and CGI-enhanced effects and his performance is mainly delivered via the wonders of motion capture technology. But he still manages to convey a strong personality and he slowly brings a strong sense of humanity to his tormented character. The audience actually comes to care about him more than we did for his animated counterpart.
Condon has assembled a strong ensemble vocal cast to voice the inanimate objects, including Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Emma Thompson is particularly good as Mrs Potts, the kindly tea pot. As Lumiere, the fussy candelabra, and Cogsworth, the officious time piece, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellan develop a wonderful bickering dynamic reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy or R2D2 and C3PO, and they bring a strong streak of humour to the material with their vocal performances.
Much has been made of Gad’s Le Fou being one of the first openly gay characters to appear in a Disney film, but he supplies the comic relief to temper Gaston’s belligerence and arrogance. But he comes across as an inoffensive character – although he initially seems weak and cowed by Gaston’s masculinity he eventually finds the backbone to stand up to his bullying demeanour.
Director Bill Condon is better known for his darker, more adult fare such as a couple of films in the Twilight franchise, Dreamgirls, the sexually charged biopic Kinsey, and Gods And Monsters, etc, but he still manages to bring a slightly darker edge to this familiar material. He has studied the animated film as well as watching the Broadway musical, and has a great understanding of the enduring appeal of the material. Some superb state of the art special effects brings the inanimate objects to life and they are seamlessly incorporated into the live action. A highlight is the wonderfully choreographed Be Our Guest sequence, which harks back to the glory days of old Hollywood musicals. While this live action version features the songs from the animated original, composer Menken and lyricist Tim Rice have also contributed three new songs to the film.
Technical contributions are all first class. There is some great production design here from Sarah Greenwood (Atonement, etc) that captures both the gothic look and gloomy interior of the beast’s castle and the delightfully rustic look of the small town of Villeneuve. Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are fabulous. The film has been beautifully shot by Condon’s regular cinematographer Tobias A Schliesser (Dreamgirls, etc).
This glorious version of Beauty And The Beast is a superb re-imagining of the classic animated tale. It re-energises the familiar fairy tale, and will open the film up for a whole new audience.

★★★★

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