Movie Review: ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’ dazzles, delights and enchants

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 Courtney Howard // Film Critic

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Rated PG, 129 minutes.
Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Emma WatsonDan StevensLuke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Nathan Mack, Audra McDonald and Stanley Tucci

When the 1991 classic BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was released, it was during Disney’s second animation renaissance. We’re now in the midst of another Disney Renaissance of sorts – Disney’s live-action remake-a-thon. The strategy has, so far, proven to be hugely successful, gifting us with technological advancements and 21st century narrative modernizations that further the boundaries of our imagination. Director Bill Condon’s remake improves on the original in some ways while retaining the silver screen magic, spectacle and nostalgic kick necessary for fans to fall in love all over again. It’s decidedly feminist and progressive in subtle ways. A fantasy that’s simply fantastic?! Who knew we could have such nice things when we need them the most?

The bones of the “tale as old as time” are the same – only the skin has been stretched: The Prince-turned-Beast (Dan Stevens) has been cursed to a life of solitude due to his cruel behavior. But in this iteration, he comes with a more built out backstory (A dead mother! A cold father! No one to set him right!). This allows us to form a stronger attachment when the heartbreaks and hoorays occur. Belle (Emma Watson) is still a fearless, intelligent beauty who’s mocked by the small-minded villagefolk. But now her enlightened thoughts, innovative actions and proto-feminist views are brought to the forefront. She’s imbued with fierce autonomy. That’s right: no more Stockholm Syndrome! Town hunk Gaston (Luke Evans) remains a boorish bully fueled by machismo, but now he’s made even more intimidating through his abhorrent actions. Sycophantic LeFou (Josh Gad) endures as Gaston’s trusted bestie, however the homoerotic undertones of the original are now strummed for pure comedic delight. And the original’s tertiary characters of Maurice (Kevin Kline) and the castle’s cursed waitstaff – like candlestick Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and teacup Chip (Nathan Mack) – are all given even greater depth and dimension. We even get two new characters – wardrobe Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald) and piano Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) – who provide the monumental moment of the first interracial kiss (for Disney animation-to-live-action remakes).

Dan Stevens and Emma Watson in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Condon’s remake, penned by screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, “gilds the lily” on more than a few occasions – and I’m pleased as punch that it does. The excess is glorious and, while not absolutely perfect, legitimately belongs. The animated film, which clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes, was extremely economical. That said, it also let a few story threads dangle (Where’s Belle’s mom? Why is the Prince such a tyrant? What’s the deal with the Enchantress?) and others curdle over time (like Belle’s prisoner status and the innocent castle staff’s extremely harsh punishment). The modernization spares no expense whilst fixing the glaring oversights of the original (cough, cough. the plot’s inherently rapey connotations), gifting us with things we never knew we wanted to see – like the castle in its heyday, more bonding time between Belle and the Beast, a deeper father-daughter relationship, and astute insight into the staff’s psyche and emotional anguish. While it stops short of committing to the body horror aspect, it’s there – at least as much as it can be for a PG-rating. Though the original tunes metaphorically roll out the welcome mat (“Be Our Guest” is even more of a deliriously raucous Busby Berkeley number in this medium), the new songs – “Evermore” sung by Stevens, “Days in the Sun” sung by his staff, and “How Does A Moment Last Forever?” sung by Watson and Kline – add more luscious tonality to the breathtaking world in which we’re a gracious guest. Plus, the new sheen also provides insanely timely resonance in its thoughtful, grounded sentiments.

Performances are crucial in selling the nostalgia, and the entire ensemble is, for the most part, cast perfectly. Evans, Gad and Kline absolutely steal the show. Evans and Gad’s chemistry is off the charts. They embrace the comedy and villainy with gusto. Kline’s work is subtle, but effective and affecting. Outside of a few blank stares Watson gives (especially noticeable when she’s gazing upon a talking teacup for the first time), she nails Belle’s forthrightness, capability and strength. Stevens is also good, but unfortunately is a hampered by the CG, which is nowhere near THE JUNGLE BOOK’s, nor anything from Weta Digital, who worked on PETE’S DRAGON. Sarah Greenwood’s exquisite production design, Jacqueline Durran’s marvelous costumes and Tobias Schliessler’s dazzling cinematography also earn top marks. Their work is intrinsic to the immersive quality.

Simply put, Condon and Co.’s Broadway-caliber remake is irresistible, entrancing and enchanting. It’s also incredibly necessary for our times – perhaps it can inspire change just like the change in the heart of the Beast.

Grade: A

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST opens on March 17.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.

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