This is a thing now for Disney: Dust off the time-honored playbook of animated and hugely profitable classics such as “The Jungle Book” and “Cinderella” and now “Beauty and the Beast,” take advantage of all the CGI and motion capture technology available — and presto!
You’ve got a live action reanimation, suitable for audiences the world over and capable of bringing in hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars.
Be their guest, be their guest, be their guest.
Bill Condon’s take on “Beauty and the Beast” is almost overwhelmingly lavish, beautifully staged and performed with exquisite timing and grace by the outstanding cast, many whom are seen on-camera only in brief moments, given they’re playing household objects and furniture and the like.
(If you don’t have an IMDB-level knowledge of the casting prior to entering the theater, it’s kind of fun when you find out that, yep, that was Emma Thompson in that role, and oh, so it was Stanley Tucci playing that part, etc.)
Although a few new songs have been added and the screenplay does include a few updated touches, including the controversial “exclusively gay moment” (as director Condon referred to it in an interview that spurred quite the dust-up), the screenplay by Steven Chbosky and Evan Spilotopoulous remains quite faithful to the 1991 animated version of the classic fairy tale.
Of course, the beloved hit tunes are prominently featured — everything from “Belle” to “Gaston” to “Be Our Guest” to “Beauty and the Beast.” And while Emma Watson (Belle) and Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) won’t make your forget about Paige O’Hara and Angela Lansbury, respectively, they and the rest of the cast do a fine job performing songs you’ll find yourself humming days after leaving the theater.
Watson (Hermione from the “Harry Potter” movies) is all pluck and spunk and sass and smarts and fierce independence as Belle, who is considered a weirdo in her village in France because she always has her nose in a book and she doesn’t suffer fools. That latter trait is a real bummer for the dashing but dim-witted and narcissistic Gaston (Luke Evans), who is hell-bent on marrying Belle even though she tells him again and again and AGAIN she’s not interested.
(The casting of Evans is perfect. Not only does the guy look like a cartoon leading man come to life, he’s terrific at making himself the butt of the joke.)
I loved the tone and scope of the early production number, “Belle,” when we meet our heroine and learn of her lot in life. It’s as if we’re watching the most expensive, the biggest, the most ambitious Broadway musical ever made. Whether we’re looking at massive sets or CGI or a combination, the end result is spectacular.
Once Belle is in the clutches of the Beast (Dan Stevens from “Downton Abbey”), we settle in for the familiar story — with all its romance and fantasy, and yes, more than a little bit of silliness. (He’s a BEAST. He has HORNS AND HOOVES. I don’t want to sound “looks-ist,” but even as we come to understand why Belle would have genuine affection for the big fella, it’s a stretch even for a fairy tale to believe she’d fall in love with him. Because he’s, you know, a BEAST. With HORNS AND HOOVES. Think of the children!)
Cutting-edge motion picture trickery allows for some pretty cool CGI versions of the elegant and sweet French candlestick Lumiere (Ewan McGregor); the blustery and fussy but big-hearted clock called Cogsworth (Ian McKellan); the motherly teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), and the wardrobe with the opera singer’s pipes (Audra McDonald).
Watson is well cast as Belle, who even when she is being held captive in a castle comes across as an independent spirit. Stevens has kind of Dark Knight thing going with his booming voice (it sounds electronically altered) and of course is essentially playing an animated character in the beast, but his eyes convey his humanity, and there’s some wonderful self-deprecating humor as the Beast becomes less of a monster and more of a man.
As for the “exclusively gay moment” involving Josh Gad’s Le Fou, it happens late in the film and it takes up about five seconds of screen time – but if you don’t think Le Fou has had a serious thing for Gaston all along (even prior to this version of the story), you were missing some gigantic blinking neon indications, my friend.
Disney presents a film directed by Bill Condon and written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. Rated PG-13 (for some fantasy violence, sensuality and partial nudity). Running time: 126 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.