Disney's current kick of remaking their iconic animated films in live-action shows no sign of stopping. Not only did Cinderella make more than half a billion dollars on a budget of less than $100 million, but last year's The Jungle Book wiped the floor with WB's would-be titan Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice at the box office. So it absolutely makes sense that the House of Mouse would want to have another bite at the apple (see what I did there?) of one of their most well-known and well-regarded films.
And while it was utterly unnecessary, Beauty and the Beast is yet another - mostly - successful effort.
Let's get this out of the way - no, 2017's version of the story is not as good as the 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast. My feelings on this film are well-recorded, and unlike the other live-action remakes we've seen so far, there's no different take on the story here like Maleficent (this is almost beat-for-beat) or a previously lesser version that gets improved upon. What we have here is a movie that embellishes upon what is widely regarded as the most perfect realization of the 2D Disney Animated Musical. What's ironic is that said embellishment is largely what Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale chose to pare down in order to get to the most emotionally potent and narratively focused version of the story.
This version still opens with the voice-over narration telling of the selfish prince cursed to be a beast by a tricky enchantress, then segueing into introducing Belle and her "little town." The film's cast is almost ludicrously packed with reliably great British and Broadway character actors as the inhabitants of both the village and Beast's castle. Arguably the best in a film of very good choices ends up being Kevin Kline as Belle's father, Maurice. Kline is a walking font of pathos and charisma most of the time, but here he's very well-served by the additions the film makes to the familiar story.
Luke Evans as Gaston is another feather in the movie's cap. Originally designed as a well of toxic masculinity and a subtle tweak at the standard look of Disney "prince" heroes, Gaston has always been one of the key ingredients to this take on the tale, and Evans' adds another layer of personality that both make him seem a bit more human but also - in several ways - even more sinister than his animated counterpart. His relationship with Josh Gad's La Fou has gotten some ink regarding homosexual representation, and this could have been a very uncomfortable element that, in execution, ends up satisfying and proves a worthy addition to the moral center of the fairy tale. The rest of the cast winds up adding some fun notes to their roles - Ian McKellan is more curmudgeon-y than shrill as Cogsworth (which is perfectly in his wheelhouse), and Ewan MacGreggor reliably crushes it in the marquee number "Be Our Guest."
I've quite deliberately saved the title characters for last. I'd be willing to bet that this movie wouldn't exist if Disney hadn't been able to nab Emma Watson as Belle, and she is every bit as good as Disney's first fiercely feminist as you'd hope Emma Watson as Belle would be. She's more of a tinker/inventor this time around, as her father is more of an artist/toymaker, and her added interactions with the other characters feel natural and appropriate. Of particular note is the relationship with her father, and the way it ties into the rose subplot that wasn't in the original animated film, but is an iconic part of the original story that is brilliantly used here.
The Best is not as perfectly realized. There are some solid additions to the character's backstory, and they add some fun notes of humor to the character as he and Belle warm to each other. However, so much of what made the animated version of the character was down to Robbie Benson's tightrope between surly jackass and damaged sweet-heart and Glen Keane's perfect character design. While Dan Stevens acquits himself well as the Beast, and I appreciate the new design striking the balance between Keane's creature and the Jean Cocteau classic film, this is an example of the movie simply not being the perfect version that we're used to and suffering for it.
It still works overall, mind. The new songs by Alan Menken (the Disney Renassiance maestro who handled the tunes of the original) and lyricist Tim Rice fit in well, even if they lend to the feeling of the movie feeling a bit stage-y and Broadway-esque. Bill Condon's direction of these musical sequences feels like a lavish play at times, but not a cramped one (like Tom Hooper's Les Miserables), or lacking in cinematic musical flair (like Rob Marshall's Chicago). Instead, it strikes a balance between believable and fantastical that overall compliments the effects-driven magic of the story.
Beauty and the Beast is a very familiar take on a very familiar story, but like a well-known guest you've had over many times, it's still a welcome one.