With 2014’s mediocre Maleficent, Disney Studios began its string of live action re-imaginings of their classic animated films. Thankfully, the two films that followed that ill-fated starter (Cinderella and The Jungle Book) were each remarkable, improving on their predecessors by bounds. With their fourth release, Disney revisits Beauty and the Beast, and while this latest remake isn’t quite as successful as the previous two, it remains an endlessly enchanting trip down memory lane, if a markedly safe one.
Let’s be honest: everyone knows the story here. A prince (Dan Stevens), transformed into a beast by a vengeful enchantress, is forced to find love before his curse is rendered irreversible. Enter Belle (Emma Watson), the local village girl whose love of literature separates her from the “content to be simple” villagers. What follows is undoubtedly one of the most iconic romances in the history of storytelling.
While screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos provide a few minor tweaks to the tale (namely some clearing up of the seemingly Stockholm Syndrome-like nature of the central relationship), it remains largely the same. While that’s generally acceptable (the original film was nominated for Best Picture after all), the film can’t help but feel slightly unnecessary at times, often finding itself lost in nostalgia rather than bringing anything new to the table.
That unabashed reverence is incredibly welcome in one regard though: the songs. From the fantastic opening number of “Belle” to the showstoppers that are ”Be Our Guest”, “Gaston”, and “Beauty and the Beast”, each returning song is treated with extraordinary care. They’re accompanied by some incredible choreography and elevated by Bill Condon’s energetic but precise direction (his experience with musicals Chicago and Dreamgirls is clear throughout).
That precision extends to the casting. Top-to-bottom, Beauty and the Beast is perfectly cast. Watson absolutely nails the endearing curiosity of Belle, and Stevens handles the tricky nature of a motion-capture performance better than almost any other actor in recent memory. It’s the supporting performers that make the film though. From the litany of beloved character actors that provide the voices of the prince’s cursed servants (Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson are especially great as Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts, respectively) to Kevin Kline’s shocking turn as Belle’s father, it’s astonishing just how well each of them fit their roles. Stealing the show, however, are Luke Evans and Josh Gad as Gaston and Le Fou, who lend genuine pathos to previously one-dimensional characters.
Also stunning are the film’s technical merits. While returning composer Alan Menken’s score is expectedly strong and the production design courtesy of Sarah Greenwood is wonderfully old school, it’s the costume design that steals the show. A surefire bet for an Academy Award nomination in 2018, Oscar-winner Jacqueline Durran transfers the lush clothing of the original film to live action without a single hitch (the quintessential yellow ball gown in the third act is a standout).
Less consistent is the CGI. Although the enchanted items of the castle are beautifully crafted (Cogsworth & Lumiere are truly sights to behold), other instances don’t work quite as well. The violent wolves of the forest are rarely believable as inhabitants of the world around them, and the use of green screen is painfully clear at a few key moments in the film.
Despite its over reliance on the inherent nostalgia of its audience and general shying away from any kind of risk taking, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast remake is a wonderfully entertaining, carefully crafted musical that manages to earn its place next to its forebearer.