Distracted no doubt by vital matters of state, I didn't pay much attention to the release of Disney's Beauty and the Beast back in 1991, and in fact only got to watch it through recently with my niece, who fled and left me all alone during the scary bits. It's good, but I've been taken aback by how passionately some of my colleagues feel about it. It's a masterpiece, they tell me (it probably is), and Disney had better not eff up its glorious legacy with this "pointless" live action remake.
The knives were always going to be out for Bill Condon's Beauty and the Beast, which substitutes actors for those exquisite animated characters, and uses Cgi to make the candelabras, clocks and wardrobes come to life. Everything has been argued about: why was Emma Watson cast as Belle? Was Dan Stevens well-known enough to play the Beast? Could he sing, could Watson, and was Emma Thompson the right actress to stand in for Angela Lansbury?
The answer to that last query is a resounding yes, by the way, because if anyone could win an Oscar for her portrayal of a matronly teapot, it's Thompson. Turns out she can also sing, and music is front and centre in Condon's sumptuous and effervescent film, which uses the original score and songs, and road tests some new ones. It's a winning, witty production, and Emma Watson acquits herself pretty well in the lead.
Belle is the only daughter of Maurice (Kevin Kline), an ineffectual inventor, and lives in a dull, French provincial town. Surrounded by ignorance, Belle is derided for her constant reading and dreams of leaving home to begin a more adventurous life. She gets her wish, but not in quite the way she wanted.
After getting lost in the forest one night, her father happens on a huge, ramshackle castle and goes inside to warm himself by the fire. When a tea cup starts talking to him, Maurice realises the place is cursed and heads for the hills, but stops on the way out to pick a single white rose for his daughter. This enrages the watching Beast (Dan Stevens), who captures Maurice and imprisons him.
When Belle comes looking for him, she stands up to the Beast and changes places with Maurice, freeing her father and dooming herself to captivity. And while the Beast's manners initially leave a great deal to be desired, Belle is approached by a talking candelabra called Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), who explains his master's sad story.
The Beast was once a rich and handsome prince, but a vain and mean one who made the mistake of mocking an enchantress disguised as a crone, who turned him into a monster and his loyal staff into items of furniture. The spell will only be broken if the Beast falls in love and that love in returned, but the clock is ticking, and when the last petal falls from a magical rose in a high tower, all will be lost.
This, then, is a busy film, with talking clocks (Ian McKellen) and wardrobes (Audra McDonald), a strutting villain (Luke Evans) and lots of set-piece songs and dances. Those songs are terrific, from 'Be Our Guest' and 'Something There' to the mock-heroic 'Gaston': they're superbly performed, and all the actors - particularly Emma Thompson and Luke Evans - acquit themselves well vocally. Evans is extremely well cast as the self-regarding braggart Gaston, and he and Josh Gad (who plays his adoring sidekick, LeFou) make a winning comic double act.
The kerfuffle in Russia and less enlightened corners of Alabama about a gay subtext to LeFou and Gaston's relationship is so absurd it hardly deserves mentioning: LeFou's man-crush is played for laughs, and earns them, and in any case - so what? The chemistry between Watson and Stevens is more crucial to Beauty and the Beast's success, and there are no problems in that department. The Cgi Beast's movement troubled me at times, but his face is very well rendered. And while some of Watson's previous performances might have persuaded one that she was playing a wardrobe, she's much looser, freer and more dynamic here.
Beauty and the Beast
Films coming soon...
Life (Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds); CHiPs (Dax Shepard, Michael Pena); The Secret Scripture (Rooney Mara, Vanessa Redgrave, Eric Bana, Jack Reynor); Aquarius (Sonia Braga); Lost City of Z (Charlie Hunman, Robert Pattinson).