Novel-loving Belle (Emma Watson) lives a peaceful life with her father (Kevin Kline), but it seems as if she’s destined for spinsterhood. Until, that is, a chain of events leads her to a mysterious and decrepit castle, occupied by a furry brute with anger issues (Dan Stevens).
“Live-actionification” is not an actual word. It may soon become one, though, given the frenetic pace at which Disney are turning their animated classics into films featuring human actors. The Jungle Book, Dumbo, The Lion King... it seems only a matter of time before we get a photoreal The Rescuers Down Under. The ones released so far have made major bank. But even so, those charged with rebooting Beauty And The Beast must have felt a thrill of foreboding — akin to, say, the experience of approaching a cursed castle teeming with living crockery. Many have floundered trying to adapt the classic 1740 fairy tale upon which Disney based their animation, from the Fran Drescher-starring The Beautician And The Beast to the equally ropey recent French version, which paired Léa Seydoux and Vincent Cassel. Adding to the immense pressure was the passion felt by fans of the adored ’toon version. Had this gone wrong, the Magic Kingdom may well have been stormed by a pitchfork-wielding mob.
An unabashed musical with its heart on its sleeve and energy to spare, it’s decidedly unbeastly.
Happily, gone wrong it has not. Under the stewardship of Bill Condon, a director well-used to intense fans after his experiences making two Twilight films, the team behind this mega-money extravaganza rarely put a foot wrong. Following the blueprint laid out for it by its predecessor faithfully but not slavishly, it hits all the big notes, while adding a few new melodies of its own. There are a few minor fumbles, but you’re likely to walk away with a lightened step, a broad smile and at least one song-worm in your ear.
The story remains rock solid: essentially a sweet two-hander (well, one hand, one paw) in which two bookworms fall in love, helped along by an assortment of sentient household items. Everything hangs upon the casting of those two roles, but Condon has picked his leads well. Dan Stevens appears in human form during a new prologue, in which his vain prince is fopped-up, caked in David Bowie eye make-up and surrounded by simpering female admirers, before an enchantress appears and zaps him with a frankly unreasonable curse. From then on, he’s in full Beast mode, with a subwoofer voice and giant horns, resembling the cooler, better-dressed brother of the Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth. The CGI used to furrify Stevens is variable in quality, but as Beast storms around his dank keep’s exquisitely designed turrets, the performance is consistently strong. As much as he bellows, the wounded soul beneath the bombast is always clear.
As for Beauty, Emma Watson immediately charms in her big opening number, in which the heroine suffers a village-worth’s of idiots sharing (what should be) their inner monologues through song. Watson faces one difficult sequence after another — full-throated songs, tussles with talking wardrobes, emotional exchanges with a grouchy heffalump — but finds just the right combination of innocence and grit. Plus, she doesn’t sound like Fran Drescher, which is an immediate advantage.
The Be Our Guest dinner sequence is nothing less than a tour de fork.
The 1991 Beauty And The Beast is a film of big, memorable set-pieces, and the challenge here was to outdo them. It’s not always successful — the tavern singalong with Luke Evans’ self-loving bully Gaston (more murderous in this iteration) and his acolyte LeFou (Josh Gad, playing the character like a twattish Hobbit and more or less stealing the film) never quite hits the giddy heights of the 2D version. But it does pull out the stops when it counts, in the big ballroom waltz and, most of all, in the Be Our Guest dinner sequence. Here, Belle is regaled by a carnival of crockery, with serviettes sashaying, a lothario candlestick voiced by Ewan McGregor crooning and a teapot channeling its inner Busby Berkeley. Audaciously choreographed and playing out like a kitchen-based acid trip, it is the movie’s highpoint, nothing less than a tour de fork.
The film does struggle a little to make its coterie of animated inanimate objects visually appealing: as with Baloo in The Jungle Book, photorealistic anthropomorphisation doesn’t always lend itself to cuteness. A grinning tea-cup here is particularly nightmarish. But the starry voice-cast are fun, not least Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, a wind-up timepiece who says things like, “Everything is moving like clockwork.” Though sadly not, “You shall not half-past!”
With smart reworkings of some plot strands and a clutch of new songs, it’s 45 minutes longer than its predecessor. The triumph is that that extra runtime flies by. An unabashed musical with its heart on its sleeve and energy to spare, it’s decidedly unbeastly.
Those who predicted this wouldn’t hold a talking candle to the animated original will be pleasantly surprised. The tale may be as old as time, but it’s retold with freshness, brio and flair.