The 2017 live action update of Beauty and the Beast is further reinforcement that Disney knows how to entertain its target audience. Like Cinderella and The Jungle Book before it, small changes have been made to fit the story in a 2017 landscape, but the overall experience adheres to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” train of thought. And that’s a compliment, not a criticism.
The 1991 animated classic is cinematic perfection. It’s beautifully told, funny, deep, heartbreaking, and the songs are still engrained into pop culture. Now that technology has long caught up with the imagination of filmmakers, Beauty and the Beast retains everything we loved about the original. It’s almost like watching your favourite band playing live. You’re not really there to see something breathtakingly new. You’re there to sing along with the songs you already love, marvel at the stage production’s meticulous design, and to see (in this case) Belle, Lumiere, Madame Garderobe, Cogsworth, Chip, Gaston, Mrs. Potts, LeFou, and the Beast all come to life.
The plot of the film is identical to the one we remember. Belle (Emma Watson) is a young, literature obsessed adventurer who doesn’t fit in with the locals. She refuses courtship from Gaston (Luke Evans), the village’s local douche bag. Meanwhile, her father (Kevin Kline) is captured by the Beast (Dan Stevens) for plucking a rose from his garden. In attempt to save her father, Belle offers to stay in the Beast’s castle as his prisoner but only if he lets her father leave. Of course, the Beast and his servants are all under an enchantress’ spell. So it is up to a talking candle, teapot, clock, and drawer to entice Belle to fall in love with the Beast before the last enchanted rose petal falls, which would turn them all into permanent inanimate objects and the Beast would be locked in his animal form forever.
Much is to be credited to screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. They’ve kept much of the same plot points, but they’ve injected new life into how scenes play out. For instance, the two lovers are able to connect through the loss of their own respective mothers. The Beast in the live action version is also a lot tamer than the Beast in the cartoon. He doesn’t rage anywhere near as much, which allows the connection between the two to grow a lot more organically; not necessarily more convincing, just different. It’s very interesting to see the moments where Belle and the Beast learn to respect each other, like at the dinner table where Belle stops using utensils, or where the Beast shows Belle his library and the two of them are able to connect through their mutual love of stories and adventure. These are all well written scenes. They’re constructed to emphasize that what Belle starts to fall in love with is the Beast’s intellect, so when that iconic dance sequence occurs, you completely buy the mutual attraction they have for one another as people.
Bill Condon, an expertly visual director, knows how to convey the emotions that each scene is supposed to reflect through lush scenery, production design, and blocking the actors. While the live action film is noticeably darker than the animated version, it is no less colourful. Every costume has been faithfully recreated from the original, but also to accurately reflect the time period. It is simply a wonder to look at.
A lot of credit to this film’s success also has to be given to the actors. Emma Watson is perfect as Belle. She’s got an incredible singing voice that captures your attention right from the opening song. This is her film and she’s able to stand alongside all the effects and grand scale visuals without being swallowed up in them. Luke Evans is the perfect Gaston. Josh Gad is hilarious as Gaston’s sidekick Le Fou. Of course Kevin Kline brings everything he has to the role of Belle’s father. But it’s the voice talents that you really become attracted to. Ewan McGregor, who recreates the magic of “Be Our Guest” in a way that will make you sing along with him, is wonderful as Lumiere. Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, and Audra McDonald not only recreate the humour and the personalities of the objects they’re playing, but their acting styles are able to transcend their voices into actual performances.
All this simply adds up to a film that is every bit what it intended to be. There are some things that I thought the original did better. For one, a scene in the animated film where the Beast allows Belle to leave the castle to rescue her father ends with a bloodcurdling roar that communicates the pain, fear, and anguish the Beast is feeling. Unfortunately in the live action version, the Beast starts singing another song instead, and it’s not even that good of a song. Also, as good as Dan Stevens’ performance is, the Beast is very noticeably CGI. It’s not too distracting, but it is disappointing given that we live in an age where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and The Jungle Book have made us unsure what exactly is real and what has been CGI. Also, the heavy handedness of Le Fou’s homosexuality was a bit unnecessary. I mean, did anyone really think Le Fou wasn’t gay in the original film? This is also a film that very subtly and respectfully creates a world where gay and transgendered people are naturally accepted as part of society. Did every joke Josh Gad makes have to end with him wanting to get with Gaston?
But these are just minor quibbles in a film that is simply everything you’d ever want a live action Beauty and the Beast film to be. It’s magical, romantic, beautiful, heartbreaking, scary, and put a smile on my face for the entire 2 hour run time. Those that loved the original will love this film. Those that have never seen the original will still feel just like how the original made us all feel back in 1991. The question isn’t about whether you should see it. It’s about how many times you want to see it.