Disney’s latest attempt at translating one of its classic animated films to live-action is a beauty, if a bit flawed.
For the live-action take, the script was tweaked to allow Belle to be even more independent (and less of a Stockholm Syndrome sufferer) and a late tweak include a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gay moments. Neither of these tweaks is a flaw.
We all know the story of the beauty who saves her father from a lifetime in a beast’s dungeon by taking his place – and the way the beauty and the beast slowly come to know each other and fall in love.
It’s a story that appears in many cultures around the world but with the brilliant live-action film by Jean Cocteau, it really became a beloved classic. The Disney version added music and a grand quality that was only limited by the minds (and talents) of its animators.
The live-action Disney version is beautifully shot and – with one exception – brilliantly cast. It’s also a bit more expansive than I expected, equally – or nearly equally – matching the animated version for verve, and pure entertainment value.
Emma Watson makes a delightful Belle. She is, indeed, an odd girl – not caught up in petty gossip or swooning at feet of the handsome, narcissistic Gaston (Luke Evans), or dreaming of a handsome prince to ‘take her away from all this.’ Instead, she reads voraciously and tinkers with inventions – including a donkey-powered washing machine!
She’s kind and considerate – something you can’t say about most of her fellow villagers.
When her father (Kevin Kline) goes missing after a falling tree sends him to the Beast’s (Dan Stevens) castle, his horse returns home and she rides it back. Even more than in the animated film, this Belle is quick to action.
When he roars at her, she roars back. She’s not completely fearless, as a couple of scenes show, but she’s not going to let fear overwhelm her.
Kline is lovely as Maurice – his love for Belle is so pure and honest. When his secret is revealed, we know it was motivated by love.
Beast is tormented by the thought he’ll always be a beast and never be a man again. Stevens is a force in the role – his motion-capture performance is so finely tuned that we never doubt for a second that there’s an individual in pain under the rage.
Where the film misses a beat is with Gaston. Evans is simply too bland for the role – he gums the scenery rather than chewing it – he never goes full ham!
The voiceover cast is impeccable – Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Chip (Nathan Mack), Madame Garderobe (Audra Macdonald) and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) all hit exactly the right notes throughout.
Which brings me to the film’s second flaw. As beautifully realised as they are, the CGI servants are nowhere as physically expressive as the animated versions. The voices are so right that the lack of equal physical expressiveness keeps big numbers like Be Our Guest from reaching maximum impact (they’re still great fun, but…).
Fortunately for Beauty and the Beast, the villain really isn’t that important overall (you have to wonder what Josh Gad’s brilliant LeFou) sees in him and the heart of the story – Belle and Beast – is as effective as the animated version.
The tweaks to Belle make it clear that she isn’t falling for Beast so much as the person he is transforming into because of her. By the time the film’s final moments arrive, Beast could look like Ernest Borgnine and she’d still love him.
The joy of Beauty and the Beast – even with its flaws – is that it makes us feel like we’re seeing the story for the first time.
Final Grade: A-