Meet the New Beast

Beauty and the Beast fleshes out old Disney magic with modern extravagance 

Beauty and the Beast
Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad & Kevin Kline
Directed by Bill Condon
PG
In theaters March 17, 2017

It’s a tale as old as time, so goes the song.

At least as old as 1991, when Disney put an animated, song-filled spin on Beauty and the Beast, the 1700s French fairy tale about a cursed prince, the village maiden who becomes his prisoner and lessons about love, acceptance and belonging.

The former Beauty and the Beast, a hugely popular hit and critical success, was nominated for six Oscars and won two, becoming the first animated film to ever receive an Academy Award nod for Best Picture.

That’s a high bar to reach for, but Disney goes for it in its lavish new retooling, which combines sumptuous live action with extravagant special effects. Emma Watson is Belle, the headstrong hamlet bookworm longing for something “more than this provincial life.” Dan Stevens plays the haughty young prince doomed by a callous act to live forever as a shunned, outcast beast—unless he can find someone to love, and someone who’ll love him back.

The new movie follows its animated predecessor almost note for note; the storyline, characters and songs (“Belle,” “Be Our Guest,” “Gaston,” “Beauty and the Beast”) are just where they used to be. But there are also all-new versions of the signature tunes, some new musical snippets and two completely new songs—Celine Dion belts out “How Does a Moment Last Forever” and the Beast sings “Evermore,” a soaring, brokenhearted power ballad, after he releases Belle back to her father. And the new movie adds a couple of new sequences, like the magical trip Belle and Beast take for Belle to discover her childhood roots.

Luke Evans as Gaston (right) and Josh Gad as Lefou

It’s great fun watching the 1991 movie get “fleshed out” with people where cartoons used to be. Luke Evans (who played the wronged husband, Scott, in The Girl on the Train) has a hammy ol’ time as Belle’s comically vain, dunderheaded suitor, Gaston, whose jealousy and rage eventually bring the story to its calamitous climax on the parapets of the Beast’s castle. Josh Gad is Gaston’s fawning aide-de-camp, Lefou, whose performance leaves little doubt that the character is meant to be overtly gay, hopelessly pining for his clueless, macho friend.

“You can ask any Tom, Dick or Stanley, and they’ll tell you which team they prefer to be on!” Lefou sings in “Gaston,” which in the new Beast becomes a campy burlesque ode to the manly alpha-male object of his barely suppressed affection.

For the House of Mouse, Lefou is a Mickey milestone.

Kevin Kline has a significant role as Belle’s tinkerer father, Maurice, and there’s a host of all-stars as the Beast’s staff, who are collaterally hoodoo-ed into household items by his curse. Lumière the candelabra (Ewan McGregor) is a standout, but there’s also Mrs. Potts the teakettle (Emma Thompson) and her son, Chip the teacup (young Nathan Mack); Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellon); Maestro Cadenza the harpsichord (Stanley Tucci); Plumette, a bird-like feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw); and Madame Garderobe, a warbling wardrobe (Tony Award-winning singer/actress Audra McDonald).

As Belle, Emma Watson sings, gallops on horseback, fends off a ferocious wolf pack and looks terrific in a big, billowy yellow dress that becomes the movie’s iconic garment. But she’s “no princess,” as she pointedly informs Madame Gardenrobe, who wants to adorn her in something girlish. And in one pivotal moment, Belle ditches the yellow gown, leaving it on the ground in a crumpled, discarded heap as she dashes off to defy the town mob, who’ve been stirred to a roiling “Kill the beast!” frenzy by Gaston.

You go, girl!

Dan Stevens is certainly capable as the Beast. But fans who know him as the star of the FX TV series Legion, or remember him as dashing Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey, might wish the handsome Brit didn’t spend most of the movie hidden inside the lumbering costuming and special-effect fur of the Beast, who resembles a hunky cross between a towering NFL lineman, a bipedal ox and Lon Chaney Jr.’s wolf man.

At two hours and almost 10 minutes, this Beast feels overstuffed, especially since the 1991 version was 45 minutes shorter. The blowout musical numbers seem out of time, like something Old Hollywood would have made in a bygone era of elaborate, over-the-top soundstage productions—more Wizard of Oz than Oscar-snagging La La Land, and without any of the contemporary snap, crackle and pop of recent live TV musical events like Hairspray, The Wiz or Grease.

Director Bill Condon (whose resume also includes Dreamgirls and the final two installments of The Twilight Saga) seems over-eager to impress, especially inside the Beast’s castle, which is so “alive”—soaring saucers, prancing napkins, musical wall sconces—it feels ready-made as a ride-through Disney attraction. “Be Our Guest” in particular, when all the enchanted objects put on a dinner show for Belle, is a noisy, swirling, computer-generated spew that eventually becomes exhausting. (And I’m not even sure poor Belle actually gets anything to eat.)

But for anyone who fell under the enchanting spell of Beauty and the Beast more than 25 years ago, and later, there’s certainly a lot to love again—including encouraging signs that Disney continues to change with the times. You certainly didn’t see a gay sidekick, or two sets of interracial characters sharing a kiss, back in 1991.

So enjoy the walk down memory lane, the new movie’s fresh, real-people flourishes, its 2017 tweaks and its high-tech, special-effect shines on a familiar old story—this “tale as old as time.” And look closer and you’ll also find, indeed, as another song says, “something there that wasn’t there before.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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