Tweaking their revered animated classics with the star power, cinematic language and digital rendering of the day has provided Disney with a sure-fire way of making their back catalogue relevant for an entirely new generation. Canny marketing and expert brand management has cleverly extended the lives of the most familiar stories and fairy tales, and produced such recent hits as Maleficent, Cinderella and The Jungle Book. With Dumbo, Cruella, Mulan, The Lion King and The Little Mermaid all in current states of development, it’s clearly a business strategy that is not going to disappear anytime soon.
So where does director Bill Condon’s sumptuous and lavish update of the 1991 musical fantasy Beauty and the Beast fit into the grand Mouse House Makeover scheme of things? Well, while that transfixing masterpiece was the first animated film to be nominated for the best picture Oscar, this technically marvelous, live-action retelling won’t achieve any such accolade, although like its predecessor it may fare well in the craft categories. And while Condon’s impressively mounted spectacular won’t replace the original in terms of being sheer magic from joyous start to radiant finish – it’s just too enervatingly frothy and slightly saggy for that – it will stake its claim in the affections of those to whom the classic cartoon now feels more like rose-tinted nostalgia.
The story is virtually an identikit of that 90s delight: a meld of de Villeneuve’s original French fairy tale and Leprince de Beaumont’s abridged 1756 version. Transformed into an ugly beast by a sorceress, a selfish prince (Dan Stevens) must find a girl to fall in love with him to break the spell and prove that beauty is only skin deep. Enter Belle (Emma Watson), a local village’s oddball student, scorned by the locals for her bookish ways and inventive cleverness (she devises the first mechanical washing machine), who takes her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner when he’s caught picking a rose in gloomy castle grounds plunged into a permanent state of winter.
The enchanted servant household, including candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), carriage clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), matronly teapot Mrs Potts (Emma Thompson), her teacup son Chip (Nathan Mack), wardrobe Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), harpsichord Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) and feather duster Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), know Belle is the Beast’s final chance for love before the last petal falls from the dying rose and their fate is sealed. So they cosset Belle and lay the foundations for her to hopefully see their master’s inner soul in the proper romantic light. But no one has reckoned on vainglorious lothario Gaston (Luke Evans) to storm the castle and once more try and win Belle’s hand in marriage with one last violent gesture.
Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos over-egg the already rich pudding by adding in numerous backstories. Where the 1991 version began with a concise stained-glass-window explanation of the curse, here we get an extravagant pre-credits ballroom sequence spelling out events. Gaston’s goofy sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) also emerges with a more fleshed-out character, although the much-reported-on gay undertones are subtle to the point of virtual invisibility in the light of the ethnic tolerance and feminist slants. Much of the extra 44-minute running time, compared to the tightly constructed original, is taken up with the strained relationship between Belle and her father Maurice (Kevin Kline), who never gives a reason for her mother’s sudden exit from their lives. One of the additional fantasy adornments has the Beast allowing Belle to use a magic atlas to travel back in time to Paris to learn the sad truth.
With respect to the songs and soundtrack, all the evergreen hits have been included in re-recorded versions, including new material written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice like “Days in the Sun” and “Evermore”. In the case of the familiar “Gaston”, Menken has restored lyrics initially dropped by Howard Ashman as a fitting tribute to his late writing partner. Happily the “I use antlers in all of my decorating” line remains, surely one of the best lyrics ever! Does Emma Thompson’s version of the title song improve on Angela Lansbury’s stunning 1991 rendition? Not in a million years! But at least the Busby Berkeley-inspired “Be Our Guest” survives to be the undisputed showstopper once more. You really will feel like applauding at the end of this gorgeously appointed sequence. Incredible to think that the original plan was to film the story without the songs, that is until Frozen became a massive hit and made Disney see sense.
Condon (who has musical pedigree with Dreamgirls) is clearly having fun throughout his ambitious flight of chocolate-box imagination, wickedly calling to mind The Sound of Music in one particular hilltop aria and Emma Watson’s past life as a Hogwarts pupil with castle interiors that owe more than a production design nod to both Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Jean Cocteau’s La Belle and la Bête (1946). With Dan Stevens being a somewhat stiff CGI rendition of Jean Marais from that latter masterpiece and Watson a rather too earnest damsel in little distress, acting kudos must go to Luke Evans who captures perfectly the funny yet sinister sides of Gaston’s conceited narcissism.
Only sometimes putting a foot wrong, everything you want from an old-fashioned musical fairy tale is all present and correct here. And given the most up-to-date technical finessing, it looks fabulous, the gilded CGI household is superlative and the palpable aura of grandeur is on a sophisticated and stylish epic scale. But as good as this Beauty and the Beast is, it’s just not as transporting, engaging, witty, charming or touching as the peerless original. It really is as simple as that.
Beauty and the Beast is in cinemas from 17 March 2017