“Tale as old as time …”
Disney, in all its wisdom, decides to capitalize on an animated classic and turn it into a live-action film. Sometimes it works, especially when it tells a different part of the story or tells the story in a different way. 2014’s “Maleficent” with Angelina Jolie worked because it wasn’t the frame-for-frame story of “Sleeping Beauty.” “Mirror Mirror” with Julia Roberts and Lily Collins in 2012 also was a different take on “Snow White.”
And then there is last year’s “The Jungle Book,” which was beautiful to look at and might have been more successful if it had not tried to incorporate all of the music of the 1967 animated film. Of course, what it had going for it was that many of today’s kids had never seen the original movie, and some of their parents might not have, either. They weren’t judging that “Book” by the previous “Book.”
“Beauty and the Beast” doesn’t have that same advantage. Belle is one of the Disney princesses. Today’s generation of kids have watched the 1991 version over and over again on DVD. Many of them have Belle costumes and dolls. They can sing all the songs and know how they should sound. And their parents also know that version very well.
From the very start, audiences who come to the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” with the 1991 version in their heads will be thrown. The film starts off before the curse. We see the palace in all its glory. We meet Lumière and Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts and Chip and Madame Garderobe and Maestro Cadenza before they were turned into objects by the curse. And we see the Beast as human (played by Dan Stevens, of “Downton Abbey” fame, who is somehow unattractive in human form and better looking as a beast. How is that possible?).
Yes, we get to see the curse happen in more vivid ways than in the storybook telling of the animated film, but the mystery of not really knowing these characters in human form is gone and with it some of the magic of when they become human once again at the end.
The live-action version is full of backstories — how Belle lost her mother, how Beast lost his mother and became hardened, who the enchantress is, why the village has no idea that there’s a castle not far away, who Chip’s father is, and why it is that only Belle can read. This makes for a very long movie. At more than two hours, more than a few parents in our screening had to get up with young kids for bathroom breaks. It also means that new songs have been added, ones that weren’t in the animated version or the Broadway musical.
The movie opens with an operatic number by Audra McDonald, who plays Madame Garderobe, and closes with her operatic version of “Beauty and the Beast,” which was unnecessary. Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts sings a much better version during the film, much more soothing and akin to the Angela Lansbury version of 1991.
All of the original songs in the animated version return, but the timing or phrasing is off just enough to be slightly jarring to people who have memorized the 1991 soundtrack.
Emma Watson as Belle surprises. Yes, she’s not as strong a singer as Paige O’Hara (the 1991 Belle), but she holds her own. She is charming and spunky and carries this film. Her thick English accent, though, makes it impossible to believe that she lives in France.
Also surprising is Kevin Kline as her father. He carries a tenderness with him that the original character never had. Instead of the crazy tinker, he’s a thoughtful artist who loves his daughter dearly and has never really gotten over the loss of his wife.
Many of the other actors — Thompson, Josh Gad as LeFou, Luke Evans as Gaston, Ewan McGregor as Lumière and Ian McKellen as Cogsworth — feel like they are playing the role of the actors who came before them. They try hard to sound exactly like them both in speech and song.
In addition to the backstories and additional songs, this “Beauty and the Beast” has much more humor, mainly from Gad’s LeFou. At first, it’s kind of fun, but after awhile, you’ll be saying, “Enough already.” The film also is filled with much more diversity in the people at the castle and in the village, but it all feels like diversity for diversity’s sake and doesn’t extend beyond McDonald in a major role.
The film is beautiful. Really beautiful. You want to go there, frolic in that countryside, study in that library, dance in that ballroom.
If you loved the 1991 animated version, you may be disappointed, but if you’ve never seen it, this could be the “Beast” for you.
“Beauty and the Beast”
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Josh Gad, Luke Evans, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen
Rating: PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images
Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, Metropolitan, Round Rock, Southpark, Stone Hill, Tinseltown, Westgate. 3D: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, Metropolitan, Round Rock, Southpark, Stone Hill, Tinseltown, Violet Crown, Westgate. IMAX: Barton Creek, Bullock, Gateway.