Emma Watson is a brisk, sprightly Belle and Dan Stevens a perfect Prince in the hotly anticipated live-action remake of the 1991 animated musical. 3.5 stars out of 4.
My skepticism about the necessity of Disney’s live-action remake of its beloved 1991 animated musical “Beauty and the Beast” lasted, oh, about 90 seconds. The new film’s opening moments include a giant 3D red rose that seemed on the verge of beautifully devouring the audience, the irresistible spectacle of Dan Stevens’ Prince (pre-Beast) sprawled louchely on a gleaming throne as throngs of exquisitely gowned women whirl on a dance floor, and the glorious gilded-bird trill of Audra McDonald’s operatic soprano. It was gorgeous, it was over-the-top to the point of absurdity — and just like that, I was all in.
A lot of us fell in love with the 1991 “Beauty,” because it symbolized our childhood (or maybe somebody else’s), because the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman songs were perfection, and because brave, bookish Belle was such an enchanting heroine. This lavish new version, wittily and soulfully directed by Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls,” “Gods and Monsters”) and beautifully designed by production designer Sarah Greenwood, is both faithful imitation and very much its own creature. (Adding to the movies-within-movies feel: a brief homage to another beloved film version, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 “La belle et la bête”; a hilarious throwaway nod to the movie musical “Cabaret”; and a moment that’ll have everyone thinking of “The Sound of Music.”)
A few new songs, by Menken and Tim Rice (Ashman died in 1991) and the teeniest bit of an origin story for Belle and her father have been added, but otherwise the story’s comfortingly familiar — a tale as old as time, you might say. A Prince, caught in a sorceress’s curse, has been transformed into a hideous Beast, and must find true love to reverse the spell that has fallen over his entire castle. It arrives in the form of the smart, spirited village girl Belle, who ultimately discovers his kind heart within. (You know these two are destined to be together when you see that they both like to read while eating dinner.)
Movie Review ★★★½
‘Beauty and the Beast,’ with Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Hattie Morahan. Directed by Bill Condon, from a screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, based on the 1991 animated film written by Linda Woolverton. 129 minutes. Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images. Several theaters.
Emma Watson, who sings sweetly and well enough (though you’ll miss the soaring notes of the 1991 Belle, Paige O’Hara), is utterly winning as Belle. She’s got a way of gazing at her surroundings in bright-eyed wonder — watch her, calmly enraptured, during the wild theatrics of “Be Our Guest,” and you’ll suddenly see a dazzled-by-magic 11-year-old Hermione Granger — that grounds the entire movie, and she makes Belle’s courage briskly matter-of-fact. Stevens, though the beast is mostly CGI, lends his melted-chocolate voice appealingly to the proceedings. And the rest of the cast is just right, particularly Luke Evans and his manly jawline as villain Gaston (the one who uses antlers in all of his decorating) and Emma Thompson as housekeeper/teapot Mrs. Potts, who has the unenviable task of following in the voicesteps of the great Angela Lansbury and yet warmly makes the role her own.
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Is it overlong? Sure, a little. Did I sometimes wish the camera would calm down a bit during the musical numbers? Absolutely. But this “Beauty and the Beast” had me leaving the theater feeling utterly happy; like I’d spent time with old friends who’d grown and changed, and yet remained the same at heart.