“Beauty and the Beast” – “Little Town, it’s a quiet village. Every day like the one before.”
Director Bill Condon’s live-action adaptation of Disney’s eternally wonderful, animated treasure “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) – which, in turn, was based upon the 1946 French film with the same name – reaches the big screen, and it begins with a prologue, an explanation of how a prince turns to a beast.
We know this story.
Well, we believe to know this movie’s beginning, middle and end, and especially after a refresher release of the 1991 animated picture just a few years ago in 2012. Unless Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos really wished to shake the ground from beneath our feet and generate legitimate outrage from “Beauty and the Beast” fans everywhere, they would leave the lead narrative void of major twists and deliver the story that we all know.
As the film moves from its prologue at the castle to a small French village, we meet Belle (Emma Watson), as she begins her day.
She breaks into a number called “Belle” and sings the words noted at the beginning of this review. At that moment, Condon, Chbosky, Spiliotopoulos, Watson, the costume designers, choreographers, cinematographers, and everyone else working on the picture has us.
To borrow a line from “Jerry Maguire” (1996), “They had us at ‘Belle’.”
Initially, at least.
The song and presentation are spectacular, with all of the musical pageantry, poetry and moving parts triangulated into a flowery, fanciful feast for one’s eyes and ears, as Belle recites her story of yearning for something more than her little town has to offer. Reciprocally, most of the townsfolk find Belle fairly strange for reading books all day and searching for adventure outside of their village’s borders, sans her inventor father named Maurice, played with a light, comedic bounce by Kevin Kline.
Maurice naturally and inadvertently becomes the catalyst to unite the girl and the cursed prince (Dan Stevens), who broods in his gray, solemn castle.
The Beast’s castle and the winter wonderland surrounding it look as though Disney poured millions and millions of dollars into their construction. According to imdb.com, the film’s budget is estimated at $160 million, and it is money well-spent. Belle and Beast stand emotionally opposed during their first meeting, but their hearts gradually grow closer over time. Simultaneously, sweeping set pieces, entertaining royal subjects – who appear as ordinary housewares, like Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) – and agreeable songs rush through us like the wonder of a brand new Disney World ride. Although, that is not exactly correct, because this live-action, multimillion dollar tour is not brand new.
We know this tour.
Condon successfully passes the earlier-mentioned challenge of not significantly altering the narrative, but with any remake, it cannot escape comparisons to the original, especially if it does abide by the rules of following the same story. For example, during the magical scene at the castle when Mrs. Potts (Thompson) sings “Beauty and the Beast”, it feels impossible to not compare her work to Angela Lansbury’s timeless rendition. Thompson certainly performs pleasantly and skillfully during the movie’s most important moment, but 2017’s three-minute sequence does not possess that “it-factor” of its 1991 predecessor.
Conversely, other sequences like “Gaston”, “Something There” and “Be Our Guest” drew no judgmental comparisons from me, for reasons I cannot explain other than the live-action versions truly hit their marks.
The movie’s runtime, however, does not hit its mark. The picture runs a noticeably long 2 hours and 9 minutes, which could be a very tough sell for younger children, and as a point of reference, the 1991 picture ran a tidy 1 hour and 24 minutes. At least a portion of the additional 45 minutes covers more fight time between Beast and the knuckleheaded lead antagonist, Gaston (Luke Evans), extra tracks like a solo by Beast called “Evermore” and Belle’s family history.
We do not know that backstory.
With Disney’s backing and a recognizable, A-list cast including, Watson, Thompson, Kline, Evans, McGregor, Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Ian McKellen, “Beauty and the Beast” does reach its lofty expectations of pomp and circumstance. This film is a beautiful piece of work that deserves accolades from casual and rabid fans alike.
The filmmakers, however, are subjected to an unfair squeeze play: keep the story intact, but also deliver something fresh and new. Even with an additional 45 minutes of film, I don’t know if Condon is entirely successful.
I felt a bit like Belle during her opening song and walked away thinking, “This movie is like the one before.”
“Beauty and the Beast” (2017) is, but it is also gorgeous.
Image credits: Walt Disney Studios