It took me quite a bit of time after yesterday’s screening of Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast to figure out how much I liked it. The new movie, directed by Bill Condon and starring Emma Watson, is lovely. It’s visually ambitious, epic in scale, and knows how to use nostalgia to pull fans of the classic animated film right into its musical wonder. But if I weren’t such a (die-hard) fan of the 1991 film, would I still like it as much? While I can assure you that the new film doesn’t quite capture the same magic that made the original such a beloved piece of cinema, it’s an adaptation that fans will appreciate, even if it doesn’t leave new audiences too enamored.
Emma Watson shines as Belle, the bookish and brave country girl who yearns for a life of adventure. She never fit in socially in her small village and frequently must dodge the aggressive advances of Gaston, seamlessly performed by Luke Evans. At Gaston’s side, Josh Gad plays a snarkier, less oafish Le Fou. When Belle’s father Maurice (Kevin Kline is also given a more refined version of the animated character) goes missing, Belle ventures into the enchanted castle where the Beast (Dan Stevens) resides and takes her father’s place as his prisoner – with her own secret resolve to escape.
The story plays out almost exactly like the original, except for some new minor characters and songs. Belle is delighted and intrigued by Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), and the cast of enchanted objects. A friendship forms between her and the Beast in no time, and I mean that kind of literally. Belle’s status from prisoner to guest is a quick promotion, and if there is one thing I wish it is that screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos weren’t so dedicated to crafting such a faithful remake. Some of the most interesting parts were new insights into Belle’s and the Beast’s respective tragic backstories, but these moments only skim the surface. The relationship between Belle and the Beast feels much less like a romance this time around, and even though the chemistry between Watson and Stevens is tangible, the pacing of their courtship leaves a lot to be desired.
The remake was an opportunity to expand not just the visual scope of the film but the story itself. Disney accomplished this with Cinderella a couple years, and I had hope for the same with Beauty and the Beast. Sure, it delivers on spectacle with rousing big moments teamed with the swelling of the now iconic musical score and songs. But it can be argued that it relies too much on those elements, leaning heavily on nostalgia instead of showcasing true originality. However, Condon is a fine director, and turning the film into a full scale musical production is a highlight of the experience, enough so to make it worth one’s time and money.
Beauty and the Beast is far from being a bad movie; it simply didn’t meet the exceedingly high expectations set by 1991 animated film. On its own, it is charmingly brought to life by a wonderfully eclectic cast of actors and remains an engaging story despite how familiar it is.
Beauty and the Beast opens in theaters on March 17.