The Bock’s Office: Disney’s latest live-action remake a real ‘Beauty’
Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme… You’ve known the story and its title tune for years, but that doesn’t make the new “Beauty and the Beast” any less magical.
If you go…
“Beauty and the Beast,” rated PG
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars
Running time: 129 minutes
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans and Kevin Kline
“Once upon a time” is a phrase known well by a young woman named Belle (Emma Watson), whose love of literature is her only escape from the mundane lifestyle of her small French village where she and her artist-inventor father Maurice (Kevin Kline) are both regarded as a little odd.
Though Belle has no interest in romance, that does little to stop Gaston (Luke Evans), a war hero and renowned hunter who sees the loveliest girl in town as his latest conquest. The unwanted advances are the least of Belle’s problems when Maurice does not return from a trip to market, forcing her to find him. Her search brings her to a mysterious castle where the old man is being held prisoner by the property’s master, a mixture of man and animal known as The Beast (Dan Stevens), who demands recompense for Maurice trespassing.
Rather than let her father die in a dungeon, Belle offers herself to serve his sentence. Though she expects a lifetime of misery ahead, she is astonished to find the castle is full of magical inhabitants as the result of a powerful spell that made the Beast what he is. And, though the cold stone structure hardly feels like home, Belle’s relationship with her captor starts to develop into one of respect and possibly something even more.
It’s hard to imagine anyone better for the lead role here than Watson, with Belle sharing so many traits with the “Harry Potter” actress’s Hermione Granger — bookish and beautiful, yet a tad hard-headed when it comes to her principles. You would be too, if you lived in a place where reading is barely tolerated, much less when it’s being done by a girl.
Good thing these folks are too dull to know what “provincial life” means as she sings it while walking down the street.
Stevens stays steadfast as the snarling, snarky prince punished for his past heartlessness by being transformed from a pampered fop into something as ugly outside as he was inside, the Beast’s appearance now less of a hodgepodge of the animal kingdom and more a werewolf with demon horns.
He’s also not so much a brute as his animated form, able to hold an intelligent discussion on Shakespeare but still inclined to eat his soup face down.
Plus, you really don’t want to get between him and his roses.
As for the household servants who have been cursed along with the rotten royal, Ewan McGregor shines brightest — as you’d expect — as debonair candelabra Lumiere, who still retains a somewhat human façade unlike his lady love Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a flittering feather duster, or cantankerous clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), a less than reliable source for the correct time unless it’s the top of the hour and he can’t control his chimes.
Let’s not even mention the court composer (Stanley Tucci) who keeps losing his teeth — keys — as the castle’s run-down harpsichord, or his former opera diva wife (Audra McDonald), a bombastic personality now reduced to being Belle’s wardrobe.
There’s no replacing Angela Lansbury as kindly kettle Mrs. Potts, but Emma Thompson puts her own spin on the feisty teapot who slowly but surely helps guide the two star-crossed lovers together.
Evans hams it up, as he should, as everyday villain Gaston, who recognizes that it’s Belle’s intellect that attracts him as much as her looks. If you’re thinking that’s because he respects her opinions, not so fast — the narcissist’s no-means-yes approach to wooing is to leave her dad for dead in the forest and then toss him in the asylum for good measure.
Plus, nothing gets a girl interested in you like leading an angry mob to kill the guy she’s currently seeing.
As comic relief LeFou, Josh Gad’s role is upgraded from Gaston’s pint-sized punching bag to being a more vocal, witty bosom buddy whose attachment to his companion is more than a man-crush.
There are more than a few tweaks to the cartoon that was arguably the pinnacle of the 1990s Disney Renaissance, including more references to the 1940s French masterpiece “La Belle et la Bête.”
The story is expanded beyond some of the fairy tale limitations of the past, for one, explaining why the village people don’t seem to know there’s a castle just down the road. Also, it corrects the oversight that the Beast — who still doesn’t have a proper name — wasn’t even a teenager yet when he crossed the enchantress who forced him to learn a lesson in the worst way.
The music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman are still there in “Belle,” “Gaston,” “Something There,” “Be Our Guest” and of course the eponymous song that won an Oscar. A new lament by the Beast called “Evermore” by Menken and Tim Rice adds to the already strong soundtrack, though it may prevent the sing-along you want.
Were this update of the animated classic a re-creation by rote and the music note for note, it might be a purposeless, joyless exercise, but it is far from that. As the original did, it reminds us that beauty and worth come from within — as did nearly every Disney feature that followed — but even more so that society creates its own monsters, often without realizing it.
One worry about “Beauty and the Beast” is that even 26 years later, it would be too soon after the release of the cartoon, though since when has overload ever been a problem for the House of Mouse? With live-action versions of “Mulan,” “The Lion King” and a long list of others coming soon, get ready to feel like a kid again.
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