Beauty and the Beast may be timeless, but Disney’s latest revamp of the “tale as old as time” is steeped in special effects and themes of the 21st century.
This reimagined live-action Beauty and the Beast, under the eager direction of Bill Condon, features a cast of enchantingly detailed CGI furniture, an impressive new soundtrack, and Disney’s first (debatably) openly gay character, all while taking place in 18th century France. The film retains the roots of the story we all love and know while stamping it with a modern style of its own.
Most noticeably, this “Beauty and the Beast” takes a leap forward from its traditional look. The costumes, designed by Academy Award-winning designer Jacqueline Durran, are updated from their original cartooned archetypes and given a modern twist. Belle’s famous yellow ball gown is transformed into a dress fit for a modern ball and her provincial get-up is charmingly simple.
The storyline, however, is far from simplified. The backstories of Belle and the cursed prince have an added depth to them that serves to propel the original children’s film into a deeper, more nuanced tale. For example, the enchanted furniture of the castle is now directly involved with the prince’s curse, which serves to explain their continued loyalty to him. Additionally, Belle’s mother, previously left an enigma, is now a character that enriches the backstory of Belle and her father, Maurice, played by a heartwarming Kevin Kline.
Emma Watson, as a beautiful but dull Belle, is at the center of the action as an unfortunate beauty with dreams for something more. As a singer, Watson falls short, even with the help of graciously applied auto tune, and is clearly overshadowed by the professionally trained voices in the cast. (Audra McDonald’s unmistakable soprano specifically stands out.) But as a Belle, Watson mostly delivers. Our Hermione is all grown up, though she still seems to draw on specific features of her original “Potter” role for her Belle. That is, her cleverness and a thirst for knowledge.
Luke Evans is an excellent Gaston. He is detestable as the villain, yet admirable in his energetic delivery of the part, most notably in the number “Gaston”, which is arguably a greater pleasure to watch than the esteemed “Be Our Guest” sequence. Josh Gad is charming as Gaston’s flamboyant lackey, LeFou, but his sexuality, in my opinion, is still left up to surmise. Although critics praise this “openly gay” LeFou as a leap forward for the LGBTQ community in Disney films, LeFou’s sexuality is still ambiguous and is only as gay as people want him to be.
But the real star of the film is CGI. The advances in special effects mostly serve to enhance the overall quality of the film. The teapots, candelabras, clocks, and wardrobes of the castle come to life in a way that is as magical as it is real. (Ewan McGregor’s Lumiere is particularly endearing.)
The designers also use CGI to highlight the gentle qualities of Dan Stevens’ Beast at the expense of losing some of his abrasiveness. Stevens is perhaps a little too likable as the cursed prince, but manages to balance that with the anguish of his solitude poignantly in the Beast’s new song, “Evermore.”
With all its modern hoopla and star-suddenness, this Beauty and the Beast marks a successful transition from age-old fairy tales into the modern age of entertainment and is definitely worth the watch, as a remake of the original for those who remember it, or as a first time exposure to the classic story.