Ever since it was released back in the nineties, Disney’s tale as old as time has enraptured the hearts and minds of little girls everywhere. Sure, it’s no Moana (2016), pushing the feminist theory that women can be leaders without a man by their side. And its soundtrack never quite hit the same viral level that Frozen’s (2013) epically overplayed track Let It Go did. But for everyone who grew up with Beauty and the Beast (1991), it was not just a classic romance, but an enduring piece that made us believe everyone, regardless of looks or personality, could one day find the thing we crave so dearly - love. So, with the legacy of those children’s hearts and souls on the line, it’s safe to say that there was a lot riding on how well the studio pulled off their live-action version of the film, over 25 years later. For me, a girl who unabashedly knows every line to the ensemble act Be Our Guest, it was also about whether it could reclaim some sense of the magic the film brought to my childhood. The magic I’ve lost as I’ve grown up. And damn, if it didn’t turn out to be so much more I had planned.
The 2017 live-action update is a larger-than-life piece, pitched as a scene-by-scene remake of the original. We begin with the Prince’s prologue, detailing his narcissistic tendencies and cold heart. Turning away an old hag because of her appearance, he and his court of onlookers are left aghast when she transforms into an enchantress, cursing everyone inside the castle. Back in town years later, our pretty protagonist is dreaming of adventure, while shirking the brutish Gaston and his eager advances. After her beloved father goes missing while headed to market, Belle sets out to find him, trading places with the artist after he is captured and leaving her life in the hands of a hardened creature. As she gets to know the transformed inhabitants of the castle, including fan favourites Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs Potts, Chip and Plumette, as well as new characters like Cadenza, she discovers there may be more to her new world than she first believed. Bonding with the Beast over their love of books, the pair’s connection blossoms into a romance, as they visit Paris through the pages of a bewitched novel. When Belle’s father falls into trouble again, thanks to Gaston’s dastardly ways, the Beast sets her free and she runs to his rescue once more. But as the villagers learn of the terrifying monster so close to their town’s walls, they lead an uprising, which ends in a showdown between man and monster, and finally, the much-awaited expression of love between Beauty and Beast.
Many critics have claimed the biggest failing of the film is that it does little to update the original’s story. What was once a tale of a feminist girl singing about a world outside marriage but settling for a Prince is still, in essence, the same thing. There are no great revelations about Belle transforming into a 21st century woman. No actual adventures in the great wide somewhere. About the closest we come is a throwaway line to our beauty’s headstrong nature. But I have to argue that this is not a flaw. Like I mentioned earlier, this isn’t Frozen or Moana. It’s not even Mulan (1998) or Pocahontas (1995). Part of feminism is accepting that some women can be strong and independent while still wanting love to define them. What’s important is that it’s a choice, a decision the woman gets to make. And for all the Stockholm talk, some of it justified, some of it not, Belle makes her decision after she is given the freedom to do so. After she has fled the walls of her ‘prison’ and after she has every opportunity to leave her relationship as merely a friendship. Disney is all about the happily ever after’s, and sometimes, we must accept, the happily ever after’s involve love. Belle is an educated and fearless woman. She is a dreamer and an inventor. She is someone little girls should look up to, not just because she wears a gorgeous golden gown and dances under a starry sky. But because she knows what she wants and chooses not to settle.
The casting is exceptional, taking two-dimensional characters and realising them in human form. Luke Evans and Josh Gad are a dynamic duo as Gaston and LeFou, riffing off each other and providing most of the comedy for the film. Evans’ strong tenor resounds in his solo numbers, as does his physique when he impressively lifts two cast members mid-song. In this version, he even receives a back story to help explain his violent demeanour. Gad meanwhile, turns in a stellar performance in a role he was born to play. What was a snivelly, downtrodden servant becomes a misunderstood, compassionate and redeeming character, who might finally get his own happily ever after by the time the credits roll. Watson is gorgeous as ever as our leading lady, inhabiting the wonder and awe of her original counterpart perfectly, while balancing it with her own grace and intellect. About the worst one can say about her is that she seems somewhat disinterested as the film begins. Too timid. Too indifferent. But just like the prince, by journey’s end her Belle has morphed into the person she truly deserves to be. Speaking of the beast, I’ll admit, it did take a while for me to warm to Dan Steven’s portrayal. Perhaps it was his jarring representation in the prologue, or the fact he was a CGI monster for 95 per cent of the film. But by the time his long-overdue solo song comes along in Act Three, there was not a dry eye in the house, or a heart left in one piece.
The film is not without its faults for sure, and to claim it had none would be an injustice to all the things it did right. The fact they are so few and far between is what sets it apart from other productions. Visually it is a juggernaut, everything from the Swarovski encrusted gowns to the jowls of the beast beautifully created and envisioned on screen. Among this though, the newly designed Mrs Potts stands out as a sub-par construction. Not just because her new ceramic side-face appears slightly disconcerting, but also because Emma Thompson’s voice never quite reaches the great heights Angela Lansbury’s did. Similarly, while the songs are expertly crafted in the new film, adding something to their originals rather than detracting from them, one in particular comes across as far too overblown. Be Our Guest was an intrinsically feel-good moment of the original animated feature, but in its recreation it becomes nothing more than a stunted, jumpy production aiming high and falling low. Had they chosen to run the song from start to finish it could have been saved, but by allowing multiple beats for the music to swell and soar and the Fantasia (1940) elements to take place, it impedes the rhythm and detracts from the wonder.
The real question fans want answered before they fork out their hard-earned cash for yet another Disney remake, is whether the film ever truly become the glorious spectacle it promised the world it would be. Or whether it is just another bastardised version like Alice in Wonderland (2010) or Maleficent (2014). The answer is a joyous yes, full of fluttering butterflies, mysticism and grace. The animated original has long been heralded as a ‘classic’, making it hard to believe any film could even come close. But here we are, with a transporting piece, full of flourishes and lacking in gimmick. It’s pure, unadulterated fun, toned up for the nineties babies who are now in their mid-to-late twenties, but still charming enough to win over a new generation of little girls and boys. It’s fresh, unforced and unequivocally grand. It really is a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme. It’s a beauty and a beast.
Rating: 4.5 Roses out of 5
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