If you are as much of a Disney fan as I (few are), then the thought of a live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast gave you cause to salivate — one that kept the songs and its composer, eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken! I was sold, but as the days to release got closer, I found myself getting more and more cautious — suppose the end result sucked, a la Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables? I am proud and thankful to say that this adaptation, directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), is nothing short of brilliant. I write this review assuming that you are familiar with the base of the story (and you had better be!), and as such, spoilers follow.
One thing viewers of the 1993 Broadway show may not be aware of is that none of the songs written for said show carry over into this film, but fear not, as Menken and lyricist Sir Tim Rice write new songs that both make up for the missing ones and craft a new experience for the viewers of the show. Speaking of the songs, the movie is filled with brilliant performances, beginning with the Harry Potter franchise’s Emma Watson, who can sing, rest assured, and in spite of her promoted desire to modernize Belle, I was, as a feminist, glad to have seen her more resolute than openly militant — we’re bordering on the political, but I’m super happy this wasn’t rewritten as “Steinem and the Beast.” Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) makes a brilliant Beast, with one hell of a set of pipes — his signature number, “Evermore,” brought tears to my eyes, but it’s Luke Evans (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) who brings his latent background in musical theatre to the forefront and aces the role of Gaston with a great voice and the right levels of smarm, condescension and cruelty — just the right type of villain! Acting as his toady is Josh Gad (Back To You) as LeFou, who gets a larger story arc in this version, which fleshes him out without totally changing him. Kevin Kline (Silverado), as Belle’s father Maurice, brings a befuddled persona to the character, reminiscent of Buster Keaton in Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with an equally kind nature requisite of the character. He doesn’t get much of a song — less than two minutes — but his necessity isn’t in his singing, and you’ll find out when you see this.
The servile characters of the castle just about steal the show, with Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!) and Ian McKellen (Cold Comfort Farm) leading the pack as Lumiere and Cogsworth, respectively. With great singing voices (although Sir Ian doesn’t get to show his much), they make “Be Our Guest” a showstopper even better than the original (there’s even a visual nod to Esther Williams’ swim ballet pictures!)! Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) is adorable and kindly as Mrs. Potts, with a more knowledgeable nature than in the animated film, and alongside her is relative newcomer Nathan Mack as Chip, who is freakin’ adorkable. Here’s to your long career, boy!
Underplayed, but still appreciated, are Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Concussion) as Plumette, the featherduster and Lumiere’s flame (…groan…), Audra MacDonald (A Raisin in the Sun) as Madame de Garderobe, a soprano-cum-wardrobe, and Stanley Tucci (The Whole Shebang) as new character Maestro Cadenza, a court composer turned harpsichord. They each get their moment to shine, to be sure, but a little more couldn’t hurt. Still, not a big enough gripe to warrant a lesser grade.
Again, those fearing too much modernization in this edition need not worry — what wasn’t broke (or baroque) in the 1991 classic mercifully remains unfixed in this version. Sure, there’s the much-publicized “gay-making” of LeFou, but if it wasn’t publicized, I guarantee nobody would have even suspected it. It’s mercurial, and those of a discriminatory position needn’t fear their children’s safety — you never needed to anyway. Other plot points that warranted expansion are done brilliantly so, from the whereabouts of Belle’s mother and what happened to the Enchantress, and that speaks volumes of the talents of writers Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being A Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War), both writers I didn’t care much for prior to this, and director Bill Condon, who may have directed both parts of the Twilight saga closer, Breaking Dawn, but aside from giving him experience in visual effects work, there’s nothing resembling those two duds in this film.
Bravo to all involved in this adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, who have created something as memorable as the musical and film that preceded it. It’s a pity it wasn’t released in time for last Oscar season, but it was better they take care of the film and not rush a single thread. I will happily see it again in IMAX 3D, and I urge all readers of this to see it too!