It’s all about the music.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), Disney’s live-action remake of their beloved animated classic from 1991, succeeds for the simple reason that it’s still got those songs by Alan Menken. Everything else is gravy.
I enjoyed this new version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST so much I’m going to say something here that will be sacrilege for those who love the 1991 film version: I liked this new version better.
Sure, I really liked the 1991 animated film and was glad it received a Best Picture nomination that year, but for me the best part of that film has always been Alan Menken’s songs. In fact, his score was so good I’ve always thought it really deserved to be in a film with real actors as opposed to animated ones.
This 2017 version gives Menken’s music the platform it has always deserved.
The plot, of course, remains the same. A handsome but selfish prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed for his meanness and turned into a hideous Beast. His servants are cursed as well, as they are all transformed into household items.
Meanwhile, in a neighboring village, an “odd” farm girl Belle (Emma Watson) who would rather read books than marry the muscular village heart-throb Gaston (Luke Evans) lives with her equally eccentric inventor father Maurice (Kevin Kline). When Maurice becomes lost in the woods and finds himself at the Beast’s castle, he is taken prisoner there. Belle comes to his rescue and makes a deal with the Beast to take her father’s place.
We then learn that in order to break the curse, someone must fall in love with the Beast, and the former servants who are now household objects believe Belle is this women, and they go out of their way to arrange a romance between Belle and the Beast.
This 2017 version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is probably not going to receive the recognition which the 1991 animated hit received, which is too bad because it’s a very good movie. It’s grand entertainment from beginning to end. That being said, it’s not without flaws, but even these drawbacks don’t derail this two-hour and nine minute musical.
Many have lamented that Disney chose as its director for this film Bill Condon, the man who directed the awful THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN – PART 1 (2011) and PART 2 (2012), but Condon also directed MR. HOLMES (2015), an intriguing tale of an aged, dementia-suffering Sherlock Holmes, and GODS AND MONSTERS (1998), an equally engaging movie about the later days of FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale, both films starring Ian McKellen in the lead roles, who also appears here in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.
Condon’s work here is closer in quality to MR. HOLMES and GODS AND MONSTERS than those horrible TWILIGHT movies. The film is colorful and beautiful to look at, the pacing is upbeat, and for a two-hour plus film it doesn’t drag at all, and the musical numbers are lively and satisfying.
Emma Watson has also been receiving her fair share of criticism for a rather flat portrayal of Belle. Sure, Watson doesn’t play Belle like a princess. She plays her like a bookish farm girl who is more interested in imagination than romance, which is exactly how Belle should be portrayed. So, while I agree that at times Belle isn’t the most exciting woman on the planet, she’s not supposed to be. I thought Watson nailed Belle’s persona.
I did have a little bit of a problem with the CGI used on the Beast, and it’s not that the Beast looked fake— he looked fine— but that he looked a bit too handsome. He’s not very beastlike in appearance. He’s not hideous or revolting or frightening. He’s pretty darn good-looking for a beast. I kept thinking of that line from the song “Werewolves of London”: And his hair was perfect.
As the Beast, Dan Stevens does a serviceable job providing the voice, and even displays some well-timed humor when he’s the prince at the end of the movie.
The rest of the CGI effects on the occupants of the castle are unusually understated and simple. Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and Chip all look rather plain. Some have interpreted this as inferior CGI, but I liked this effect. It kept the film from going down the road of high silliness.
Kevin Kline turns in a nice performance as Belle’s father Maurice, and he enjoys some fine moments.
But hands down the two best performances in the movie belong to Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou. Now, in the 1991 animated version, these two provided the comic relief and were over-the-top ridiculous. As such, they were probably my least two favorite characters in the 1991 version. It’s the exact opposite here.
While they remain over-the-top and again provide comic relief, both Evans and Gad add so much more to their performances, giving these characters nuances which simply weren’t there in the original. Evans, as the handsome cad who every woman in the village other than Belle pines for, plays this aspect to the hilt, but he also grounds the character with a sense of military realism that makes Gaston more of a three-dimensional villain here.
As good as Evans is, Josh Gad is even better as LeFou. He provides several laugh-out-loud moments in this movie, and he makes LeFou much more than just the mindless bumbling sidekick we saw in the animated version. This LeFou is a real person. Much has been made about the gay angle of the character, and all I can say is it works wonderfully and it’s a natural progression for the character.
Ewan McGregor is serviceable as Lumiere, but the rest of the cast is hardly noticeable, and this includes some big names. Ian McKellen barely registers as Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson, while fine as Mts. Potts, doesn’t stand out either. Even Stanley Tucci is restrained as Maestro Cadenza. But somehow, none of this really gets in the way of the success of this movie.
And to come full circle, the reason again is the music by Alan Menken. Somehow, those songs sound even better today.
Menken’s music score and songs have always cried out for a live action rendition.
The 2017 version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is that rendition.