Beauty and the Beast

 

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Walt Disney re-invents its 1991 animated classic with skilful aplomb.

 

Beauty and the Beast

A meeting of minds: Emma Watson and a heavily disguised Dan Stevens

 

Once upon a time there was a cartoon called Beauty and the Beast. Released in 1991, it was the first animated feature ever to be nominated for an Oscar as best picture. Then it became a hugely successful stage musical on Broadway, playing for an astonishing 5,461 performances. Later, it opened in London’s West End and won the Olivier Award for best new musical. Now we have the live-action feature version, following in the highly profitable wake of Disney’s live-action remakes The Jungle Book, Cinderella, Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland. It’s an irresistible recipe.

 

The smart move is to hire world-class directors to shape these photographic visions of the animated originals. Here, Bill Condon – who steered Dreamgirls to critical acclaim and a Golden Globe – takes the reins of the French fairy tale and gives it the full Broadway treatment. After the toe-tapping shenanigans of La La Land, it’s a shock to see such an old-fashioned musical so soon. And the film opens with a glorious bang. Set in the ballroom of the Beast’s castle, the African-American Audra McDonald belts out the newly minted Aria by Tim Rice and Alan Menken, while the dance floor is awash with the phantasmagorical costumes of Jacqueline Durran. It’s obvious that no expense has been spared.

 

To reveal any more would be to undermine a terrific story, but the reason so many of these fairy tales withstand such relentless reinvention is that the basic premise of their narratives are so timeless. Here, we are invited not to judge a book by its cover and to hope that we are all far more beautiful on the inside.

 

As Belle, that most Anglocentric of English roses, Emma Watson, segues from Hogwarts to the Beast’s castle with a pluck, beauty and assurance that should disable her detractors in their tracks. Although largely unrecognisable, Dan Stevens gives the Beast a suitably patrician air and makes his transition from curmudgeon to lovesick puppy with heart-wrenching facility. The turning point, when the monster emerges as something possibly human, is when he quotes the Bard. Belle, who is the only bookworm in her village, is dumbfounded. “You know Shakespeare?” she gasps. “I had an expensive education,” growls he. And then he gives her his library.

 

There’s excellent support from Kevin Kline as Belle’s father and a robust Luke Evans as the dastardly Gaston, while a starry ensemble supply the voices of the castle’s far from inanimate objects. Ewan McGregor’s French accent as the candelabra Lumière may draw some fire, but he holds his own on the number ‘Be Our Guest.’ As for the costumes, the production design, the CGI and the cinematography – well, they’re all pretty superlative.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Hattie Morahan, Nathan Mack, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Haydn Gwynne, Adrian Schiller, Gerard Horan, Clive Rowe.

 

Dir Bill Condon, Pro David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, Screenplay Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, Ph Tobias Schliessler, Pro Des Sarah Greenwood, Ed Virginia Katz, Music Alan Menken, Costumes Jacqueline Durran.

 

Walt Disney Pictures/Mandeville Films-Walt Disney.

129 mins. USA. 2017. Rel: 17 March 2017. Cert. PG.