Even for Disney, it’s an audacious move to out-musical your own musical. THE JUNGLE BOOK upped the spectacle and downplayed the songs, CINDERELLA was out to make sense of its protagonist in her time and place and again skipped the singing. Their latest glossy remake BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is the animated film and more, with faithful reproductions of iconic images and songs, orchestration and choreography all amped-up and given real broadway oomph.
A vain and greedy prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed to live as a beast until he can inspire true love through his actions rather than his appearance. When ahead-of-her-time dreamer Belle (Emma Watson) comes across the Beast’s cursed castle while searching for her missing father, two of society’s outcasts find an unexpected connection.
As unnecessary as this remake in theory is (the animation being one of those near-perfect examples of the form), director Bill Condon and every artist and craftsman involved do this re-telling justice. Alan Menkin returns along with Tim Rice to embellish the already beautiful songs (I loved the liberal sprinkling of notes on the harpsichord throughout and the unexpectedly dark additional line about war widows in “Gaston”). Rest assured, the new rendition of “Be Our Guest” is truly glorious, one of the most impressive musical numbers I’ve seen and understandably the most expensive in history since Emma Watson is the only “real” element in the hugely complex sequence. Watson, Stevens and Ewan McGregor as candelabra maître d’ Lumière all show off their formidable vocal range and Luke Evans may well have been born for his role belting out songs as the ultimate goofy narcissistic baddie Gaston.
They had to get the central pairing spot-on, and though Watson is charming and Stevens able to convey a lot of pain and disguised vulnerability through his sexy-Beast CG makeup, I wasn’t as instantly compelled by their relationship as I was in the animated version. Maybe it was because the animated Beast was more bestial in his appearance and physicality, his contrast with and love for Belle more marked, whereas Stevens’ Beast is a very tall and attractive man with big blue eyes, velvety fur and hipster beard (Belle even cheekily asks him if he’d consider growing it back when he returns to human form at the end). But then Beast shows, and gifts, Belle his library and with it his heart,and they had me. The couple connect through a love of literature, feeling outcast and pain in their past (more explicit in this version) and present. Anyone who doesn’t feel their heart flutter slightly as the unlikely couple begin their tentative and tender waltz clearly left their heart outside.
The production design, from lovingly crafted costumes to meticulously detailed and decorated sets and CG character designs, is decadent. The opening sequence featuring Beast’s initial transformation at a extravagant ball (Stevens looking and acting like a silent movie LeStadt) grounds the world in time and place and gives the designers cues to draw upon throughout as we rely increasingly more on CG to populate this story. The rich colours, glittering gilt and marble and expansive spaces with iridescent light were almost too much to take in in IMAX, especially as Belle and Beast whirled around the ballroom.
I will say the film’s early steps are slightly faltering, introductions unnecessarily stretched out and I’d have liked some references to Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE beyond “handy” wall lighting, especially considering Condon’s choice of French end credits. Though the film is currently the longest of Disney’s remakes, I think it could have also stood to be longer still to expand on some of the briefer musical sequences. Disney may have out-musicaled their own musical, but if money wasn’t an object (and bring Disney, it probably wasn’t) then this could have been pushed even further.
Beauty and the Beast does not disappoint, in fact it dazzles. Condon emphasises theatricality in all things and brings out the story’s innate melodrama through an accomplished ensemble singing their hearts out in stunning surroundings. Only great passion could have justified this remake, and that is what comes across above all else: love for these characters, this music and this world. SSP