“Small also means safe,” we are told, but Disney has gone for more, more, and more in its live-action remake of the classic Beauty and the Beast
“A tale as old as time.”
Well, to be precise, perhaps 26 years ago, the ultimate version of the 1740’s French tale and the best Stockholm Syndrome story ever, La Belle et le Bete was released.
A Disney animated classic, there was intimacy and warmth in the retelling of the story wherein Belle falls under the spell of the titular Beast, cursed for all eternity. And Disney’s retooling of the tale was perhaps the most popular, being turned into a Broadway musical in 1994.
However, the Disney remake machine, already in force with The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon (and coming soon with The Lion King) is back with another retelling, cannibalising their own back catalogue.
This remake strays barely away from the formula, but adds some touches in that have enraged certain sections of the world (step forward, Russia and Alabama) but reflect the times we live in.
It’s still a tale of the kindness of strangers in a way – and still front and centre of it all is Emma Watson’s Belle, a small provincial town girl who yearns for a life beyond the walls of her French village. Though as her father, played with warmth and little else by Kevin Kline cautions: “Small also means safe!”
But when her father goes missing, Belle tracks him down to a castle and finds he’s the prisoner of the Beast. (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, mo-capped to the hilt and looking furry as heck.) Tricking the Beast into freeing her father, but remaining his captive, Belle is encouraged by the residents of the castle to look beyond his exterior and see the heart within.
Desperate to lift the curse dumped upon them all by an enchantress, time is running out for the house’s servants, all turned into various items, from Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth the clock to Ewan McGregor’s slightly iffy French accented candlestick Lumiere. For if the Beast doesn’t learn to love and have his love returned, the enchantress’ spell will doom them all to stay like they are forever.
In many ways, Disney’s take on Beauty and The Beast, directed by the director of Dreamgirls and The Twilight Saga’s Bill Condon, is more an adaptation of a big stage musical than the more intimate touches of Disney’s animated classic.
From the opulence of the prelude, set deep within the walls of the castle with its stunning array of chandeliers and costumes (plenty of accolades deserve to be showered on the costume designer Jacqueline Durran for her work), everything is more, more, more. There are more people bursting to the edges of the screen than you would think possible as Stevens’ foppish prince is transformed to the Beast in all its Hammer Horror glory.
Post-opening titles, the film’s familiar refrain of Belle soars, even if one moment within sees Watson’s Belle take to the hills and bring them to life with the sound of music.
That’s partially the problem with this iteration of Beauty and The Beast – it all feels so familiar, as if Condon and the crew are more interested in hitting the expected beats rather than providing the cinema with something new to revel in.
Even Lumiere’s show-stopping tune “Be Our Guest” becomes an overtly over-the-top show tunes number, with Busby Berkeley’s aqua-musicals providing the cue for the LSD style visuals as the plates, food and cutlery swirl around Belle’s astonished face.(Let’s not even get started on how Chip the cup’s movement is very reminiscent of BB-8’s rolling). And while the visuals are dazzling, it’s almost as if those in charge had decided that more should be more in this, to try to differentiate it from its past and draw a line in the sand that this is the definitive take on the film.
If this sounds too much like a grumble, it’s not – merely an observation that the charms of the animated were so successful because of their paucity.
Beauty and The Beast has a lot to offer audiences seeking both nostalgia and a new generation to drag along.
Watson’s bookworm Belle is a finely solid and spot-on positive addition to the Disney canon – from her protestations that she’s not a princess, she’s a firm, yet occasionally feisty, Belle to look up to. And while some of her facial expressions give you the feeling she’s seen all this magic before in Hogwarts, her down-to-earth touches in the new backstory brought to Belle are warm and tender, bathed in a pathos that may have been missing before.
Evans’ Gaston, complete with boasting and braggadocio ,is a pantomime villain who actually brings more of the cartoonish to life in his murderous desire to marry Belle (“She’s the most beautiful girl in the village, so that means she’s the best” being just one of the retro-sexist lines uttered and roundly mocked by the audience); even Josh Gad’s Le Fou, who is at times camp and clearly in love with Gaston, is an oafish caricature there for comic relief and conscience in the vein of a pantomime best boy. While there’s talk that the progressive nature of this film has enraged some, from its gay subtext from Le Fou to Disney’s first inter-racial kiss, it’s good to see the House of Mouse has finally, albeit tentatively, opened its doors to the world around it.
And while some of the Pan’s Labyrinth-ish CGI on the Beast leaves a few of the subtler moments and reactions wanting, Stevens, complete with sub-woofer voice, brings levity to the lighter moments and sadness to the inherent tragedy of the Beast’s trapping.
Ultimately, while the very musical 2017 version of Beauty and The Beast has some tinkerings around the edges both narratively and musically (whether the new song additions will become classics in their own right is highly debatable), and is blessed with some flaws of execution, its magical and enchanted edges will mean that families will flock in their droves to be its guest.
Beauty and the Beast
Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans
Director: Bill Condon
Running time: 129 minutes