Review: Beauty and the Beast
PLOT: A live-action adaptation of the animated Disney classic, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST tells of the love that blossoms between a cursed prince - turned into a beast by an enchantress - and a simple village girl whose love will turn him human again.
REVIEW: Disney recently hit two resounding home runs with their live-action adaptations of CINDERELLA and THE JUNGLE BOOK, so it's perhaps not unreasonable to get one's hopes way up for their latest, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. However, for this generation, the 1991 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a very different, well, beast. A bona fide beloved classic against which so many animated films are weighed. The original CINDERELLA and JUNGLE BOOK are cherished, but not untouchable. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, I would think, is another matter.
So how did director Bill Condon do with his much-anticipated live-action adaptation? As someone who doesn't obsess over the 1991 iteration, I found this to be a very respectable, pleasant and frequently heartfelt experience. Flawed, to be sure, and no threat to the legacy of the original, but not without some genuinely enchanting moments. When put up against the recent live-action efforts from the studio, it's certainly better than ALICE IN WONDERLAND or MALEFICENT, but not as wholly magical as the two aforementioned titles.
The story you probably know. An arrogant prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed by an enchantress after refusing her shelter on the night of a great storm. As reprisal, she curses him to look like a horrifying beast, while also turning his subjects and servants into a variety of inanimate objects. (I never understood what they did to deserve such a twisted fate, and this movie doesn't elaborate on it.) She bestows to him a rose, one that will secure his fate once all of its petals have fallen off - unless he can find true love in his heart for another, who must love him in return. The prince, already a jerk on the best of days, only grows more cantankerous and heartless, resigning himself to a lonely, doomed life in his dilapidated castle.
Some time later, a lovely ("funny," according to her neighbors) young lady named Belle (Emma Watson) arrives to tempt fate. After capturing the girl's father (Kevin Kline) for stealing a single rose from his property, Beast offers her the opportunity to take the old man's place, a prisoner in his home forever. Belle agrees and, with the help of the beast's transformed friends (a candlestick, a clock, a piano, etc.) gradually begins to melt the pitiable creature's icy heart. Will they fall in love? Is it creepy if that happens..?
The beats of this film are exactly the same as the animated film's, although for some reason this version runs 129 minutes (easily 15-20 minutes too long). The song and dance numbers work well enough, although sometimes the whimsy feels forced. "Be Our Guest" (as sung by Ewan McGregor) starts off well but gets more and more chaotic as it goes on, while Watson's "Belle" is just OK without being a showstopper or a bust. The best sequence is "Gaston." in which village blowhard Gaston (Luke Evans) joyfully sings his own praises in a rambunctious tavern. The Evans-led "Mob Song," where the villain riles up his fellow villagers in an effort to storm the beast's castle, is also a winner. The classic "Beauty and the Beast," sung by Emma Thompson's Mrs. Potts, is very nice, but it's one area purists might find the live-action adaptation really falls short of its predecessor.
And yes, you read correctly: The two best songs involve Luke Evans. What may initially have seemed like odd casting turns out to be very inspired indeed, as Evans brings just the right amount of charisma and spitefulness to Gaston. A lovable rogue one minute, a miserable wretch the next, Gaston ends up being the most compelling character in the movie, and Evans is fully up to the task of making him pop off the screen. If nothing else, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST proves that Evans is very still worthy of our attention, even after it looked like his shot at Hollywood stardom had faded.
As the titular characters, Emma Watson and Dan Stevens are both quite fine. Not a rave, I know, but the two undoubtedly had difficult tasks ahead of them. It would be hard for any mortal woman to exude the allure and magnetism necessary for Belle, but Watson is, of course, enchanting in her own right, so she's perfectly acceptable in the role. Stevens, with his visage altered via motion-capture and his voice deepened, is about as good as could be hoped for. Really, the heavy lifting is on the VFX technicians transforming Stevens into the Beast, and the effect fluctuates: sometimes Beast is a believably flesh-and-blood (and fur) character, sometimes you can't help but admit it's not very seamless. (Let's put it this way, we've seen how good this kind of thing can be thanks to the new PLANET OF THE APES films, and Beast is certainly no Caesar.) Together, the two ignite some chemistry here and there, without exactly setting the screen on fire.
All other elements of the film are sturdy. Art direction, costume design and cinematography are all excellent, and the rest of the CGI is just right. Beast's talking object friends are all very neat-looking and entertaining, and the voice work by McGregor, Thompson, Stanley Tucci and especially Ian McKellen are first-rate. Though it falls short of being transcendent, Condon's film often enough radiates the kind of effervescent warmth that marks the Disney brand.
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