It’s a movie, not a wedding, but still you’ll find something old, something new, something borrowed and yes, even something blue in the live-action remake of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” that opens today nationwide.
The “old” is the story itself and this “tale as old as time” hasn’t changed significantly from the original animated film. There are a few new elements sprinkled in, including some new characters like six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald’s Madame Garderobe and some much-needed backstory to several key characters, including Belle, The Beast and some of the enchanted objects. One new character, the mysterious Agathe (Hattie Morahan), brings us our “something borrowed” as her character reminded me in some ways of a key mysterious character from “Sweeney Todd.” To say more would spoil the surprise but it’s a nice addition.
For the one or two people who don’t know or never saw the Oscar-nominated animated film, “Beauty and the Beast” follows the story of Belle (a charming Emma Watson) and her father Maurice (Oscar winner Kevin Kline), both living in a small French village where both are considered “odd” and shunned by most of the townsfolk. The only person who wants to be near Belle is the self-centered and brainless Gaston (Luke Evans) who, with his sidekick LeFou (the wonderful Josh Gad) pursues the girl relentlessly. When Belle’s father accidentally finds his way into the Beast’s enchanted castle, he is captured and taken prisoner. The Beast (Downtown Abbey’s Dan Stevens) has been cursed for his selfishness and transformed from man to beast, with the punishment also extending to his household staff who have also been transformed into enchanted “objects” like clocks, candlesticks and wardrobes, just to name a few. The Beast must fall in love and earn the love of another before the last petal of an enchanted rose dies or he, the staff and the castle will remain cursed forever. Belle (much more headstrong in this film than her animated counterpart) heads off to rescue her father and the rest of the film is the consequences of their meeting.
All of the memorable songs from the animated film are here, including a show-stopping “Be Our Guest” sung with great flair by Lumiere (Ewan McGregor). His banter with best friend Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellen) is fun and a few new jokes & jabs are added here and there. Emma Thompson makes a fine Mrs. Potts, singing the title song well but not quite matching the magic of Angela Lansbury. Falling into the “new” category would be the new songs, which are all lovely but some, to me at least, were not as good as the songs added to the Broadway version of the show. None of those songs are present, with the exception of “Home” which is used as scoring during Belle’s first visit to her new bedroom in the castle. Since previously used songs cannot win an Oscar for “Best Song” I understand the need to add at least one new song, and that nominee will likely be The Beast’s “Evermore” which is both heartbreaking and beautiful and expertly performed by Dan Stevens. But the other Broadway songs would have played no worse than the new songs and in some cases (“Home” being a major one) would have heightened the impact of their scenes.
The something “blue” comes in two forms – both Belle and The Beast wear blue costumes (Belle early on and The Beast in the finale). But you could also interpret “blue” as sad, and there is a bit more sadness to the film as we learn the backstory of both Belle and The Beast. Why is he so mean and self-centered? We learn the answer. And what ever happened to Belle’s mother? That is also addressed in a lovely but sad scene that is completely new to this film. There is also a major change to the way a key character meet their fate. I’m not sure of the decision behind this change but it really doesn’t make any difference in the long run.
There is much to like in this film, including winning performances all around. I was worried that the extensive use of computer graphics would be off-putting but I honestly loved the look of The Beast and the enchanted objects stole the show in many scenes. “Evermore” will be a front-runner for the Best Song Oscar and deservedly so – the song and the visuals in that scene are one of the film’s highlights. Those who have taken issue with Emma Watson’s singing will be happy to know that in the context of the film, her softer and less operatic approach works fine. The only time I felt her singing showed its limits was in a scene where both she and Audra McDonald sing together. The backstories are a welcome addition and enhance the reasons behind the decisions the two title characters make and why they are the way they are.
I do have a few quibbles with the movie, including some unanswered plot holes. Where did Belle get the horse? Why doesn’t their breath show up in the apparently freezing cold forest? And technically speaking, the ending breaks the one major “rule” of the film when you really think about it. But there’s also a “twist” to the ending I won’t reveal that I guess does explain this, although it really kinda invalidates the whole movie in one sense. It would be similar to saying that “Wicked” can’t exist since the source story was really someone’s dream.
Overall, I really liked the film and would like to see it again to watch for all the little “easter eggs” scattered throughout the film. I suspect it will be a box office smash but be mixed with the critics. The 1991 animated film will always be the definitive version and perhaps that is as it should be. The first animated film to ever be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture deserves a special place in cinematic history.
Lastly, I do want to address the controversy around LeFou’s much-hyped “gay moment” for lack of a better term. The scene occurs during the final minutes of the film and is, indeed, very subtle. If Disney and the producers had not made a big deal of it, many people would have just seen it as a funny happenstance in the film. Those who choose to read a bit deeper into it would see the truth of his character and see the moment as the filmmakers clearly intended. Either way, it was so subtle that those who would be the kind to be offended by it would probably never see it that way without it being pounded into their heads, while those more likely to embrace such a moment would definitely see it without prompting. There was no reason (except for a possible political agenda) to hype this moment. It did not serve the film in any way to make a big deal out of it. I liked it very much but felt that the publicity surrounding it did the moment no favors and actually made it feel more forced than it needed to be. Let me be clear: I have no problem with gay people or the inclusion of a gay character in the film. My issue is with the need to point out something that, if the film did its job properly, would have been clear to the audience and their interpretations. If you have to explain the joke, as they say, it’s really not that funny. This did not need an explanation. The moment works by itself.
**** out of *****
“Beauty & the Beast”
Screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos
Directed by Bill Condon
Now playing in cinemas nationwide
Photo: Dan Stevens as The Beast and Emma Watson as Belle in Disney’s “Beauty & the Beast”