It’s not very often that you’re going to get a critic who is not a fan of film musicals to say something nice about a film musical, or at least about traditional film musicals. Due to that jolting convention of actors launching into song, seemingly in the middle of spoken dialogue, I’ve never made it all the way through “My Fair Lady” or “South Pacific” or, to make a tad more current, “Chicago.” If the movies are offbeat, they’ve got a chance with me. “La La Land” was innovative enough to win me over, but there are only a few others — “One from the Heart,” “Phantom of the Paradise,” “Cry-Baby,” and “Pennies from Heaven” come to mind — that I’ve not only seen to the end, but also watched again.
But, here it comes: The live-action Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast,” based on the 1991 Disney animated film is, despite a couple songs too many, a swirling, dazzling, absolutely wonderful piece of entertainment. It’s an ideal film for all ages, features terrific performances from both on-screen and voice actors, is directed with imagination and energy by Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”), and is most likely already being jotted down in Oscar voters’ notebooks for nominations in next year’s production design, costume design, and cinematography categories.
Though Disney, as Disney often does, took many liberties with the original 1740 fairy tale by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, such as cleaning up the really nasty parts for the 1991 animated musical, this one, despite changing a few story details and adding a couple of (unnecessary) songs, pays a great deal of homage to that first film. And though, in the past, animation has always been able to go to places that live action films couldn’t, today’s technology — and the artists using it — allow this film to open up to incredible new levels of sophisticated and believable visuals.
But the story of the selfish, unkind prince who has a curse put on him by an enchantress — he’s turned into a beast and his servants are turned into household items — that will only be lifted when he learns how to give and receive love, is really brought to life and made appealing and captivating by the cast.
There are some great dramatic turns from Kevin Kline as the father of Belle (yes, that’s French for Beauty) and from Dan Stevens (Matthew on “Downton Abbey” and currently David on “Legion”) as the Beast. There’s some rich overacting from Luke Evans as the initially vain, then caddish, then overtly evil Captain Gaston. And we get plenty of comic relief from Josh Gad as Gaston’s pal LeFou, and from all of the enchanted former servants-turned-items and appliances (Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson — in fine singing voice — are standouts). The most screen time, of course, goes to Emma Watson as Belle. She, too, displays some nice vocalizing, but her main strength is how well she pulls off being fragile, feisty and fearless, sometimes all at once.
The script provides small bits of background on both Belle and the Beast, explaining how some sadness had been part of their younger lives, and there’s just enough terror — in this case a couple of attacks by packs of hungry wolves — to make this a bona fide Disney venture. The film is never far from being wondrous to look at, whether it’s due to the dizzying antics of the “servants” jumping and dancing around in the musical centerpiece “Be Our Guest” or from the inventive use of 3D when showing the scale — especially the lofty heights — of the Beast’s castle.
Everything leads up to an exciting and near-traumatic confrontation, and a journey right to the edge of extreme sadness. But, again, this is Disney. No one is going to leave the cinema upset. Everyone will go home feeling a sense of magic.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.
“Beauty and the Beast”
Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos; directed by Bill Condon
With Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad (and lots of voices)