Ahh, the great and wonderful Disney machine! You can love it or you can hate it, but you have to admit that they do what they do well. Very well. Many film studios, because they are either not very creative – or just very lazy, attempt to recycle material in the form of sequels, updates or ‘recreations’. And for the most part these recycled efforts are pale imitations of the original – presuming that the original was any good to begin with. But Disney continues to astound, with an extraordinary ability to reinvent, not recycle. As we have seen with the recent successes of ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Maleficent’, Disney Studios has discovered the magic formula for reinvention.
As so it is with the latest – some might say greatest – Disney reinvention: the live-action (or should we more correctly say ‘hybrid action’) version of its classic animated film, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (‘BATB’). Mixing affecting performances by live actors with extraordinary animation that brings household objects to life; by updating the original story from 1991 to current day sensibilities targeting feminism, sexuality and xenophobia; and using a design palate that simply shouts for joy (thank you, A.O. Scott), ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is nearly perfect. Yes, I have my quibbles, and they will be discussed below. But they are slight; and I doubt that any serious filmgoer will find them particularly distracting. This is a movie for all: families, singles, couples, young, old, musical lovers and pure film lovers. There is something for everyone.
For those of you who live completely off the grid, or are simply curmudgeons, here is the (very) quick synopsis. An enchantress turns a brash young prince into a hideous beast for denying her sanctuary in his palace. And not only does he become a beast, but his servants are turned into household objects – talking ones, no less. A beautiful, headstrong young girl trades herself as a hostage to the beast when her father blunders into this hidden fortress. In her captivity, a romance develops which has the potential to break the enchantress’s spell. But the local citizenry, up to now unaware of the beast in their backyard, are roused by a churlish and egotistical poseur to rid the land of this interloper. Thanks to love, music and good intentions, all’s well that ends well. Well, I TRIED to be quick.
This ‘BATB’ benefits from so many excellent parts. The actors are mostly at the top of their games; the musical numbers are reminiscent of the best of Busby Berkley (but hummable); and the design is bright and engaging when it needs to be, but dark and foreboding by turns. Perhaps this is the real key to the film. By turning a flat, two-dimensional animated feature into a glorious three-dimensional feast for the eyes, everything in the film is more accessible, engaging and emotionally satisfying. Belle’s wander through her ‘small provincial town’ becomes more than a song – it is a travelogue, cultural primer, sociological study and history lesson all in one. That’s quite a bit for five or six minutes of film time. But this is what is consistent about the film: it is always more than the sum of its parts.
I mention the actors at the top of their games, and several deserve particular mention. Of course, the biggest buzz around the film is Emma Watson as Belle, the young feminist who refuses to be told what to do and ultimately saves the day. And here my quibbles begin. First of all, I frankly don’t find Watson to have much range as an actress. She is lovely and makes an excellent Disney princess. But I found myself staring into exactly the same facial expression way too often. And her precise Oxbridge English accent is a bit much for a provincial French girl: could we please have a bit of a Gallic lilt somewhere along the way? Quibble – or quarrel?
As her antagonist, the egotistical and preening cad Gaston, Luke Evans is outstanding. He is simultaneously parody and predator, chasing Belle for his wife as he would a deer in the wild; and then rousing the populous with promises and lies to support his own ends (hmmm: sound familiar?). Josh Gad, as his best friend and supporter, walks a very fine line between obsequious and resentful, all the time hinting at a bit of homoerotic lust. That he finally comes over – or out -- from the dark side is a win for us all. The Beast’s household we all know so well from the original is populated by some of the best actors of our generation, even if we only see their faces for a very short time at the beginning and end of the film. Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci are perfectly cast. Audra Mc Donald goes a bit over the top – but just another quibble.
As noted earlier, this is a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for our time. As with any great film, its messages are carefully crafted and delivered with subtlety and grace. But those messages are absolutely there, and you don’t have to look very hard. This is a beautiful and inspiring film; and deserving of the attention of everyone in your family.