‘I’ ON CULTURE
The new Beauty and the Beast still fits the lyric “Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme,” as it weaves its magic. Although it’s a more or less live version of the wonderful 1991 Disney cartoon (after all, the candlesticks, clocks, etc., are computer-generated), it makes a real change.
The earlier 84-minute film was like a dessert soufflé, floating through legend. This time, it is more of a main course with a lot more backstory, which works in some cases but also slows the course of the story.
Belle (Emma Watson) is an out-of-place bookworm in a small town in 19th-century France, mocked and despised for wanting to do things like teaching girls to read. The major exception is “war hero” Gaston (Luke Evans), who plans to marry her because she is the prettiest girl in town. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), spends his time building mechanical devices and dreaming of the past. He goes off to a distant fair and along the way wanders into what seems to be a deserted castle and is taken captive by a beast (Dan Stevens), a prince who had been cursed for not providing refuge in a storm to an old woman who turned out to be an enchantress.
Belle goes to save him, volunteers to replace him and, while terrified of the beast, becomes enchanted with his servants who, despite being changed into a variety of household items, still serve. Leading those is candelabra Lumière (Ewan McGregor), clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), wardrobe Garderobe (Audra McDonald) and others. Belle and the Beast fall in love as they learn to understand each other. He lets her go to rescue her father, which brings Gaston and his followers to the castle in an attack. The beast is injured, but as he lays dying, Belle declares her love. Well, we all know the story.
It is a fascinating one, a feminist version of Sleeping Beauty. The cursed prince, who the movie shows was nasty because of a twisted childhood, is rescued by a plucky woman who displays as much courage as your average prince. Of course, the fact that the spell also ruins the lives of devoted servants is barely touched upon.
Part of the magic is ruined in this new version simply because we know what to expect. “Be Our Guest” is a wonderful song, and it continues to be a spectacular number. But many of us saw the original and were blown away by it the first time. Watching plates and silverware in a Busby Berkeley number was fabulous. Now, anticipating it, even the incredible technical expertise does not make up for the first “wow” that it got 25 years ago.
But when Belle and the Beast meet in the ballroom for the title number, all is forgotten and forgiven. That wonderful song overwhelms everything, and our hearts are swept away by the sheer romanticism of the moment. The moment Belle does her deep curtsy and the Beast follows with his bow and they dance is wonderfully moving. That song would win this year’s Oscar if it were allowed to enter again.
The cast is really good. Watson dominates, and the role fits her gloriously. She sings well and seems to embody everything we could want. Evans is excellent as the villain, and Josh Gad as LeFou, his somewhat over-loving servant, is particularly effective. His eventual realization that his idol does have feet of clay is very pointed.
The actors doing the voices were all effective, and McEwan turns out to be a good singer as well. Thompson was also very good, although I think Angela Lansbury gave the ideal performance of the title number. We even got a chance at a somewhat extended ending to see them as the people they once were.
You should definitely see the film. If the crowd there when we saw it is a real sample, a lot of people are going to see it. Everyone seemed to love it, and even the kids (and if you have young ones, take them!) sat quietly, entranced. This is one of the loveliest movies I have seen and well worth the cost of the tickets. Many of us fell in love with it a quarter-century ago, and the magic continues.