How does one go about retelling a classic? How do you take something old that means so very much to so many people and make it fresh and new again? Over the last few years, Walt Disney Studios has been trying to answer that question as they have one by one begun adapting their animated classics into live action films in order to introduce them to a new generation, as well as present them made new to the generations that grew up on them. With their latest attempt, Beauty and The Beast, Disney seems to have found the answer to this question. As much an expansion as it is a celebration, it transports the audience into a world that is simultaneously brand new and utterly familiar.
We are all at least familiar with the broad strokes of the tale. A young prince, rich, powerful, and arrogant turns away a beggar at his door, who in retaliation curses him, turning him into a hideous monster and his entire household into furniture and utensils and dooming them to an eternity as such if the Beast cannot learn to love and be loved in return. Then one day, a beautiful but bookish young woman’s father becomes lost in the woods and stumbles upon the castle. In his actions he angers the Beast and is told that he must stay forever. His daughter, Belle, comes along and takes his place, and eventually something begins to blossom between her and the Beast, and with it, hope of breaking the curse.
I must admit that I am far from what you would call an impartial observer here. Being a child of the nineties, I grew up on the animated original, it being one of the very first VHS tapes that I owned. (For those of you who don’t know what VHS is, please leave, you are far too young and it’s just annoying.) That being said, I came in with high expectations. The original film is an animated classic that was nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture, so director Bill Condon truly had his work cut out for him. Never in my wildest dreams could I have expected a film of this caliber though.
The visuals alone would make this film a triumph. Condon and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler have crafted absolutely stunning imagery that simultaneously brings the film into a world somewhat like our own while still masterfully evoking the animated frames of the original film. The vibrant color palate and excellent framing make even the quietest and simplest moments surreal, and that’s before we even get into the crazy fever dream that is “Be Our Guest”. Combined with some very capable choreography, the result is a live action movie musical that isn’t quite like anything this reviewer has seen before.
I do not, however, want to get so wrapped up in the visuals that I neglect to talk about the music. As with any Disney film, this is where the movie truly shines. Bringing back all of the classic songs (along with some originals), the film is a pure musical delight. All of the actors were more than game and capably filled their parts, something that is not always a guarantee with a live action movie musical. Especially worthy of note is Dan Stevens’ (the Beast) performance of the original song “Evermore”, a powerful new show-stopping number written specifically for this film. Combined with the classic Oscar winning score, it is sure to be one of the most beautifully sounding films of the year.
One would be remiss not to praise the multitude of pitch perfect (pardon the pun) performances by the cast. Dan Stevens and Emma Watson wonderfully embody the leads and put forward performances that recall the original film while still adding their own small twists to the parts. Also worthy of note is the positively scene stealing performance of Luke Evans as Gaston. Evans hams it up like there is no tomorrow and somehow manages to impart the slightest degree of pathos in the character. In a film as heavily ensemble heavy as this one, a single bad performance could have killed it but every part was filled to perfection and it results in something bordering on magical.
One thing became very clear early on in the film, and it was that Disney was not content to make a frame for frame recreation of the original. Much work was clearly put into expanding the story and fleshing out the characters. Fans of the original will find that this film provides new information that further humanizes all of the characters and makes them just that much more relatable. Even the roguish and villainous Gaston is given brief moments of humanity. Particularly noteworthy is the rather ingenious twist that was added to the rules of the curse placed upon the prince. Rather than simply be doomed to remain a beast till the end of his days, he must also contend with the fact that his staff become less and less human each day, doomed to complete their transformation into furniture if he cannot find love before the last rose petal falls. This adds an even greater level of urgency to the tail, and as a result manages to elevate the already magnificent third act. Combined with the hundred other small new touches throughout the film, it results in something that very much feels both new and familiar.
It’s very rare in life to experience something that allows you to remember what it was like to be a child, but Beauty and The Beast does just that. A masterful blend of the old and new it manages to take a film that is a fundamental piece of so many childhoods and reinvent it and a wonderful and meaningful way. You’ll laugh, you might cry, and you will think back to your younger days and remember when you too used to believe in magic.