Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are aware that the head honchos at Disney have willed themselves a successful 2017 by re-making perhaps the most enjoyable animated feature ever, Beauty and the Beast. Employing the talents of director Bill Condon – who specializes in screen musicals (Chicago, Dreamgirls) – Disney has manufactured the perfect smash hit. The 1991 original is still fresh in the minds of most parents (and many of their children, who possess legions of Disney classics on DVD), and with the success of last year’s live-action The Jungle Book, Disney simply can’t miss with Beauty and the Beast.
Props steal the show
Young Emma Watson (Hermoine, from the Harry Potter films) stars as the attractive but studious title character, and Dan Stevens (from “Downton Abbey”) is the beast who imprisons her in his desolate castle – in exchange for the freedom of her father Maurice, played by Kevin Kline. While the townsfolk are a mildly engaging lot, the joy of this story has always been the lively castle props (the candelabra, the clock, the wardrobe, the teapot, etc.), who practically pop off the screen in either production. The props are actually former castle servants who were turned into inanimate objects when an enchantress put a spell on the castle years earlier. (Don’t worry; it’s easy to follow.)
I realize this version must stand on its own, and in that respect, it succeeds. If you’ve never seen the 1991 version, there’s no reason to do so prior to watching this one. However, the original is so fresh in our minds, comparisons are inevitable. The dialogue is almost the same (with a few extra one-liners inserted to give this interpretation a more modern feel – rendering it closer to The Princess Bride than the first Beauty).
The Alan Menken and Howard Ashman score – which was one of the great joys of the initial telling – is the same, with a few instantly forgettable additions. Ashman died in 1991, so the lyrics for the new material were written by Broadway veteran Tim Rice. I typically enjoy Rice’s work, but not here. The new songs feel “manufactured” – as indeed they are.
Emma Watson is absolutely enchanting as Belle – a true Disney heroine for this generation. And while I enjoyed the casting of the castle props – Ewan McGregor as Lumiere (the candelabra), Ian McKellan as Cogsworth (the clock), and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts (the teapot) – I couldn’t help but notice that their (mostly) voice-over work was no better than that of Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and Angela Lansbury in the animated classic. Luke Evans creates a memorable villain, Gaston, and Josh Gad is a scene-stealer as Gaston’s confidant, LeFou.
Too intense for youngest viewers
My chief complaint (other than its lack of necessity) is that since this Beauty features live actors, Disney has eliminated what should be one of its largest target audiences – the youngest among us. Remember in the original when Gaston and his rebels break into the castle? The castle props fight back in a hilarious fight sequence. Here, the fighting is too “real” for the smallest viewers. When Mrs. Potts hurled saucers at the intruders in the original, it was funny. In animation, children are aware no one is actually physically harmed. Here, that is not the case. Likewise, when Gaston fights the beast atop the castle’s exterior, the fighting is too vivid and lifelike for inexperienced moviegoers. I had the same reaction to Disney’s live action update of The Jungle Book last year.
So what to do? Show the 1991 version to younger children, and save this retread for later – as Mrs. Potts would say, “When you’re older, dear.”
Is it necessary?
As for the rest of us, the new Beauty and the Beast has everything we would expect from Disney – great songs, great acting, and an absolutely magical quality about it. I would recommend it to almost anyone. But I can’t help questioning its need to exist in the first place. Why would Disney try to improve one of its greatest achievements ever? Imagine an update of Gone with the Wind. It could have perfect sets, costumes, and acting. And I’d still wonder why anyone deemed it necessary. Same goes for Beauty and the Beast. Enjoyable? Categorically! Mandatory? Not a chance.
Andy Ray’s reviews also appear on http://www.currentnightandday.com/
and he serves as a film historian for http://www.thefilmyap.com/