Unless you’ve been on a remote island for the last year or so, you know Disney has been working on a live-action version of its beloved, animated hit Beauty and the Beast. After much teasing and considerable hype, the finished product has finally been released to theaters around the world. People are flocking to theaters in droves, along with their kids (at least two girls were dressed in Belle’s signature yellow dress at the screening I attended). What they will see on the screen is a good film that doesn’t quite reach the bar set by its predecessor.
The film, for the most part, tells the story known the world over—a prince isn’t very nice to an old lady stopping by his opulent castle for shelter. She puts a spell on him and his servants, transforming him into a horned beast (Dan Stevens) and them into various household objects. The castle becomes frozen in a perpetual winter to boot. If the Beast finds true love before the magical rose in his room loses its petals, he can become human again. If not, he remains a beast forever and his servants become permanently inanimate.
In a nearby village, Belle (Emma Watson) is groaning about wanting more from life, all while helping her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) and avoiding the romantic passes of certifiable egomaniac and Narcissus wannabe Gaston (Luke Evans). When Maurice takes a wrong turn one day and lands at the castle, he picks a rose for Belle and is imprisoned by the Beast for it. Belle eventually comes to take her father’s punishment, but the Beast’s gaggle of talking appliances, led by Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) and Lumière (Ewan McGregor), keep her around—for a while. When she escapes, wolves surround her, but the Beast saves the day, suffering injury in the process. That’s when Stockholm Syndrome befalls Belle. Gaston learns of this and eventually leads a charge to kill the Beast (but fails), and the ending is all fairytale happiness.
In this adaptation, Beauty and the Beast succeeds in many areas–yet falls short in a few. The sets and costumes are exquisitely designed—there could be an Oscar nomination coming Disney’s way next year. There were some issues with the CGI—especially with the wolves and a few of the backgrounds. As for the cast, Stevens’ Beast doesn’t seem quite as angry as his animated counterpart, coming across as more of a tortured soul (he also has a solo that is fantastic). Watson does admirably as Belle, but you can tell from the first song that she can’t quite hit the high notes. To her credit, she does get stronger in her singing as the film progresses. McKellen, McGregor, and Emma Thompson (as Mrs. Potts) are fabulous; Thompson is probably the only person that could give Angela Lansbury a run with her rendition of the theme song. I didn’t quite find Evans’ Gaston to be as convincing–his change from vain leader to exactor of vengeance was too abrupt. There are a few new additions to the film, including the rose Maurice picks at the Beast’s castle, a magic book that acts as a corollary to the magic mirror, a look at Belle’s childhood, and Agathe (I won’t say any more about her). This adds almost forty-five minutes to director Bill Congdon’s film (it runs 2:09), but I didn’t find myself checking the time as a result.
There’s been a ton of discussion on the Internet and in real life about Josh Gad’s portrayal of LeFou as gay. As with many other things, speculation is just that—speculation. In the film, LeFou wants to be on Gaston’s good side, but does act a bit odd at times. It’s only at the ending battle where anything resembling gay comes into play, thanks to Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald). This comes into play (if you want to call it that) as LeFou, in the final dance, spins off from his female partner to a guy. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it sequence and really has nothing to do with the overall story.
The themes of sacrifice, love, and restoration come into play quite prominently. However, one early sequence is worth mentioning. Belle asks Maurice about her mom, who describes her as “fearless.” To a large extent, that’s exactly what Belle becomes—both in her determination to protect her father and her belief that something good exists in a hideous horned creature. In our lives, fear is an attribute that can render the strongest person powerless. But true love can vanquish fear—the Bible notes this when it says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love (1 John 4:18 NIV).” Obviously, Belle grew up a lot by the time the credits rolled.
Beauty and the Beast has its ups and downs and is definitely worth a visit to the theater with kids in tow. Just don’t expect to have it replace the animated version sitting on your shelf at home.