It’s been nearly three decades since the release of Disney’s first attempt at Beauty and the Beast and now, like Cinderella and The Jungle Book before it, the Oscar-winning animation has been given the live-action treatment, this time with Bill Condon at the helm. Disney has been careful, as they did with previous live-action incarnations, to provide the right amount of sugary nostalgia while also allowing writers Evan Spiliotopoulos and Stephen Chbosky enough room to be playful. This includes introducing more background to the characters and expanding the mythos.
We first meet Dan Stevens’ Prince slumped upon his throne looking like le Roi-Soleil in Joker makeup. We’re provided with an extended prologue about this selfish and arrogant princeling. Before long his kingdom is cast into eternal winter, he and his cronies are magically transformed and the minds of his subjects wiped of his existence. This includes Mrs. Potts (here voiced by Emma Thompson), who opts for her best cockney washerwoman and in her magical form is reminiscent of Pat Butcher – complete with dangly golden earring. The look is closer to the phantasmagorical world you would expect from Terry Gilliam but also echoes the magical kingdom established in Branagh’s Cinderella – its tone more Perrault than Christian Andersen.
The screenplay, like many a modern reading of a fairytale, opts for a psychoanalytic edge, reinforcing the Larkin-like idea that it’s our parents that really mess us up. We literally zip across the landscape into a chocolate box French village to encounter our human cast, including Hogwarts alumni Emma Watson as Belle and her father (Kevin Kline), now a clockwork toymaker grieving over the death of his muse wife. We also encounter Luke Evans as the blissfully cocksure Gaston, who has returned from an unnamed war along with aide-de-camp Le Fou (Josh Gad), who gazes on at his not-so-noble leader with doting eyes.
For the most part the plot unfolds as the original did, with a few well-placed tweaks. Belle is as bookish as ever but has a gift for inventions. She’s a medley of Disney princesses ranging from lilting flower Snow White to the action-heroine Rapunzel. She’s also no high-heeled princess but much more rough-and-tumble, casting off her ballgown when needed. Unlike previous live-action Disneys, Beauty and the Beast is an out-and-out musical, even echoing Phantom of the Opera.
All the original songs, so beautifully written by Alan Menken, are retained, with Be Our Guest a dazzling, technicolour extravaganza – although Ewan McGregor as Lumiere never reaches the same heights as Jerry Orbach’s hearty French lilt. Then there’s the legendary ballroom scene, which should still cause audiences to swoon as Beauty and the Beast plays on. Adoring fans of the original will surely not be disappointed. Disney have cast their magic spell once again, creating a modern romantic fable with lavish visuals and wickedly entertaining performances.
Joseph Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh