Disney goes all in on its riskiest live-action remake yet.
It might sound absurd to call anything about this production ‘risky’.
What’s so risky about remaking Beauty and the Beast in live action? It’s the safest of bets, a guaranteed blockbuster, the sort of surefire hit that enables a studio, in theory, to take real risks on more challenging material.
But it’s all about the stakes. Disney’s previous live-action remakes of its animated classics – Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016) – were adapted from films that simply aren’t anywhere near as popular with contemporary audiences as Beauty and the Beast.
Released in 1991 (and a Best Picture nominee at the Oscars!), the ‘original’ film holds a special place in so many hearts that a misfire here could do serious damage to the credibility of Disney’s lucrative new line of remakes.
Going into the movie, it’s fair to say people had concerns.
First off, can Emma Watson actually sing?
The answer to that one, thankfully, is yes. A resounding yes. There was always a chance that Watson would turn out to be the female equivalent of Russell Crowe in Les Misérables, a big star drafted into a musical they had no business being in, but Watson is fantastic. Her rendition of ‘Belle’ might not replace Paige O’Hara’s in your Disney playlist, but she certainly doesn’t embarrass herself.
Of the two leads, Watson – whose Belle is a distinctly modern woman – definitely makes a stronger impression than Dan Stevens, who is forced to contend with some occasionally unconvincing CGI as the Beast and comes off as a poor man’s Cary Elwes in the Prince’s human form (and, I mean, it’s not like you ever needed to be a particularly rich man to afford Cary Elwes).
It’s not that Stevens is bad, exactly, but it’s Watson who’s left to do most of the heavy lifting to make their love story work — and, to her credit, it does work.
Then there’s the surprisingly controversial issue of LeFou’s sexuality.
Gaston’s bumbling sidekick (played by Josh Gad in the live-action film) always worshipped the ground his friend walked on in the animated film, but here, it’s clearer that he has feelings for his old war buddy.
In the weeks leading up to the film’s release, this led to criticism of Disney for making their first gay character a villain. But there was no need to doubt director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters), who treats LeFou subtly, sympathetically, and, in the end, rather sweetly.
Of course, you could question whether this is even an appropriate fairytale to be telling young girls in the 21st century.
It is, essentially, a story about a woman who falls for an emotionally unavailable man while imprisoned by him, which is, you know, not a great look. But the hack Stockholm Syndrome jokes are overly reductive — it’s made explicit that Belle can only truly love the Beast when she’s free, and not under any obligation to do so.
But the real question is, did we need this update, or would Disney have been better off just re-releasing the animated version?
Luckily, this is absolutely a worthy re-telling of the classic fairytale. Most of what you loved about the sainted original is still there, but — dare I say it — it makes some improvements, too.
Condon fleshes out the backstories of both Belle and the Beast, and offers a better, deeper and more emotional take on the story. For example, in the animated film, it was never entirely clear what would actually happen to the Beast and his servants if the last petal of the enchanted rose fell without the spell being broken, but here, the effect is devastating.
The new songs (written by the original film’s composer, Alan Menken) are solid additions to the soundtrack. Individually, I’m not sure any of them truly stand out, but collectively, they help to make the film feel more like a full-blown movie musical than the original.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, from Luke Evans’ hilarious turn as the ultimate scene-stealer, Gaston, to Kevin Kline’s haunted performance as Belle’s father, Maurice. Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are all fantastic as the Beast’s enchanted servants, who come across much less nightmarish in the context of the film than they did in the trailers.
The lavish sets and dazzling costumes are pure eye candy, and Condon and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler make the most of them. It’s a visually stunning film, to say the least — I found myself wishing I could stop the movie and just explore Beast’s castle on more than one occasion.
Beauty and the Beast is a retread, sure, but it’s still shot through with pure Disney magic.
This story will be told again and again and again. As long as the teller invests this much love and care in it, the tale will always be worth the time.
Beauty and the Beast is in cinemas from Thursday 23 March.