Disney is inviting all of us to "be their guest" to yet another live-action remake of one of their classic animated films. The recent trend seemed to catch fire a few years ago with a live-action "Cinderella," followed by the very successful "The Jungle Book" in 2016, but the live-action Disney remake is nothing new: Films like "Alice in Wonderland" and "101 Dalmations" really laid the groundwork for such reinvention. But now, one of Disney's most sacred and beloved properties is getting the live-action treatment, with "Beauty and the Beast," starring Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as The Beast.
The good news is that fans of the original animated film will absolutely love it. It's hard to screw up the incredibly infectious music, settings and characters that led to the 1991 version being the very first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (since then, both "Up" and "Toy Story 3" achieved this high mark). The story, of course, follows the beautiful misfit Belle and her relationship with the horrible Beast, who - along with several of his servants - were cursed and transformed, damned to live out the rest of their miserable lives holed up inside a spooky castle. Their only hope? Getting the Beast to fall in love before the enchanted rose drops its last petal. Don't act like you don't know this tale, which is presumably as old as time.
Emma Watson does a satisfying job as the unwilling Disney "princess," although it is a real head-scratcher that she was allowed to maintain her British accent in what is undeniably a French story. It's a bit of a distraction, but one that you'll soon get over. Besides this, the other human characters in this adventure are wonderfully cast, from Kevin Kline as Belle's father to the ambiguously gay LeFou (Josh Gad), to the dashing and dastardly villain, Gaston (Luke Evans, who is simply the best thing in the movie). All of the musical numbers featuring these humans (like the opening number "Bonjour" or the tavern romp "Gaston") are - dare I say - even better than their animated counterparts. There's something to be said about the amazingly detailed set design, costumes and choreography that goes into a live production versus a cartoon.
But on the flip-side of that, there are several things that are better served with animation, as this film proves...namely, the animated characters. There is nothing that can replace the animated characters that we've come to know and love, and identify with, such as the horny candlestick, Lumiere (voiced by Ewan McGregor here), or his stuffy clock partner, Cogsworth (Ian McKellan). There is something really missing from watching actual candlesticks and furniture dance around. In a weird way, I was almost wishing they did more of a "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" situation, where maybe they could have mixed the familiar animated characters with the live-action human characters. So all of the beloved characters are present, but at the same time things just don't feel the same, and it is a bit harder to endear to these new versions. Going further, the scenes and songs featuring mostly the "animated" characters, like the staple "Be Our Guest" or even the ballroom "Beauty and the Beast" dance, don't work quite as well as in the animated film. Not only are the live characters lacking, but I didn't realize just how iconic Angela Lansbury's voice was, until when a different person sings her song, it almost seems blasphemous, in a strange way.
Then there is the case of the Beast. He is made to be a bit too suave here, and not nearly as "beast-like" as the animated character was. In the animated version, it seems wild that Belle could ever love this hideous creature...in the live-action version, Beast is well-groomed and even given some debonair facial features that, maybe after a few glasses of ale, makes him look ruggedly handsome. Of all of the criticisms this film might have, their depiction of the Beast is the most egregious.
The movie also throws in a few new songs and sequences, all of which jolt the viewer out of a state of nostalgic bliss. None of them quite work, and it sort of feels like when you go to a concert to see your favorite performer, and all they do is play their new stuff. Come on, play your greatest hits!
Quibbles aside, "Beauty and the Beast" is a very faithful adaptation that will surely please fans of all ages. The spirit of the music is contagious, and the performances are respectable. It's best not to ponder "why" Disney is remaking these classic movies, as we have just seen the tip of the iceberg (live versions of "Mulan," "Dumbo" and "The Lion King" have already been announced). And while this version may not score Best Picture at the Oscars, you can bet that you'll hear it represented in many of the other categories, from Hair and Make-Up, to Production Design, to Costumes. It's a tale as old as time, and with this 2017 version, it continues to prove its timelessness.
Genre: Family, Fantasy, Musical
Run Time: 2 hours 9 minutes, Rated PG
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Hattie Morahan, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci
Directed by Bill Condon ("Mr. Holmes," "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 and 2," "Dreamgirls," "Kinsey," "Gods and Monsters")
Opens locally on Friday, March 17, 2017 (check local listings).