Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Disney Live: "Beauty and the Beast" at once faithful and fresh as a rose

Beauty and the Beast (2017)
126 min., rated PG.

The Mouse House seems to be making it a mission to give every animated classic the live-action treatment, and so far, the results have been mostly successful. In 2015, “Cinderella” was an earnest, old-fashioned but still enchanting retelling, and most recently, 2016’s “The Jungle Book” was a rousing adventure but even more of a remarkably seamless technical achievement that made audiences forget they were watching computer-generated creations in soundstages and not living, breathing, talking animals in the jungle. Now, in 2017, “Beauty and the Beast” never skips a beat in retaining the magic of the 1991 animated classic. To see Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale retold on the big and small screen more than a half-dozen times each, turned into a stage musical that ran on Broadway for 13 years, and now returning to the silver screen once more, it’s a joy to see this tale as old as time come to lavish life in its truest, most traditional form. 

Bright, bookish Belle (Emma Watson) hopes there is something more out there than her provincial life in her 18th century French village. Her progressive views are seen as "funny" and she rebuffs the relentless advances of strong and handsome hunter and eligible bachelor Gaston (Luke Evans). When Belle’s papa, Maurice (Kevin Kline), goes off to sell one of his inventions and never returns, Belle is led by her father’s horse through the snow-covered woods to a castle where she finds him being held a prisoner for plucking a rose from the garden. Confronted by Maurice’s captor, she makes a deal with the hulking, anthropomorphic beast by taking her father’s place as the castle owner’s prisoner. Once upon a time, the Beast (Dan Stevens) was a vain, self-centered prince before he was transformed by the spell of an enchantress whom he refused to give shelter to during a wicked storm. His live-in servants were also turned into talking knickknacks, including candelabra Lumière (Ewan McGregor), clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), adorably chipped teacup Chip (Nathan Mack), falsetto wardrobe Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), piano Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), and feather duster Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Locked away in the west wing of the Beast’s castle, too, is a rose that secures their fates. If the last petal falls without the Beast falling in love, he will remain that way forever and his staff will become antique rubbish. Only Belle can break the spell if she begins to see inner goodness in him beyond his hulking size, fur, and fangs.

From story beats to the songs, “Beauty and the Beast” is ever faithful to the timeless source, but director Bill Condon (who’s proven his musical chops before with 2006’s “Dreamgirls”) and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (2012’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (2016’s “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”) bring life, spontaneity, and more than a few subtle, refreshingly progressive updates to the table to make their film feel like this story’s very first incarnation. The Beast has a magical book in his library that enables Belle to teleport to Paris. The loss of Belle’s mother to the Black Plague is handled well and adds an extra emotional depth. The prince’s castle is nicely multi-culti. There is an amusing cross-dressing gag that pops up in the film’s energetic slapstick climax when the townspeople come to kill the Beast. Composer Alan Menken, who won an Oscar for scoring the animated version, returns here with the recognizable songs, including his Oscar-winning “Beauty and the Beast” (this time sung by Emma Thompson’s Mrs. Potts). Exuberantly staged with a CGI assist, “Be Our Guest” is the infectious show-stopper it should be. “Something There” is a sweet recreation of the Disney classic’s montage of Belle and the Beast realizing their mutual feelings for one another in the snow and around the dinner table. There are also a few lovely original songs, including “Evermore," "How Does a Moment Last Forever" and "Days in the Sun," by Menken and lyricist Tim Rice that supplement the narrative with melancholy and hope.

When any animated Disney classic transitions into the land of live-action, the casting of beloved characters is key, and there’s the hope that the actors chosen can embody rather than slavishly impersonate Disney icons without just coming across as the costumed actors we’d see in the park at Disney World. Emma Watson makes a perfectly charming Belle, making the role her own with her natural grace. She’s still a kind, selfless bookworm but noticeably even more independent-minded and assertive with a backbone. It also helps that Watson can carry a tune pretty well, confidently leading her first number, "Belle," a spirited musical highlight that introduces Belle and her village. Even if the CGI of the Beast is not always seamless, looking too smooth in his motion at times, Dan Stevens is equally ferocious and tender as the cursed prince. Given the actor’s gentle eyes, one never forgets that there is an actual man under there. Luke Evans is just as one would envision the boorish, arrogant Gaston, preening with comedic gusto and showcasing his strong pipes. As Gaston’s loyal, fawning right-hand man LeFou, Josh Gad is a boisterously entertaining ham and provides the film with the biggest musical theater talents; he particularly sells the tavern-set “Gaston” and makes it an over-the-top hoot. While there are numerous hints at the supporting character’s sexuality, it’s an appropriate choice that makes the flamboyant LeFou even more endearing, so disregard the overblown pre-release backlash.

A wonderfully grand entertainment, “Beauty and the Beast” is sumptuously realized and paced beautifully. The $160-million enormity of the film never swallows up the beating heart of the story, nor does much CG artificiality show through. For one, the romantic relationship comes more out of actual chemistry and organic development than just going there because the script says so. And two, one actually cares about the fates of talking inanimate objects (all voiced and played by a high-class cast), hoping pieces of crockery will turn back into a human mother and son by the end. Without being overproduced, the melodic musical numbers deliver, too, with ravishing production values and rhythmic editing that's snappy but also allows the choreography to breathe. With enough time set between itself and its 1991 hand-drawn animated counterpart, 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast” splendidly holds a candelabra to be one of two definitive incarnations of the tale. It’s really quite magical and never tries hard to be winning. It just is. 

Grade: B +

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