Review: 'Beauty And The Beast' Starring Emma Watson And Dan Stevens

If your expectation for Disney's live-action remakes is that they be better than their animated predecessors, then disappointment will always surely follow. Cinderella, Maleficent, The Jungle Book, they all added modern sensibilities and of course pumped the CGI effects to new levels, but were they better than what we already knew? Yet somehow that expectation has been heaped on Beauty and the Beast, an almost unattainable goal considering the 1991 film was the first animated movie ever nominated for Best Picture.  Bill Condon, who has always been a director whose talents lean towards the decadent, nevertheless captures enough of the magic and enchantment of the original that millions of newcomers will fall in love with it. And that's really the point, isn't it?

Beauty and the Beast is practically a straight-up, word-for-word retelling of the tale most of us are already familiar with. It hasn't been moved into contemporary times, or given a modern spin, none of that. It's still set in an 18th-century provincial French town where the hard-working people look sideways (and sing entire songs about) the odd bookworm Belle (Emma Watson), who dreams of leaving her boring, sheltered life. She gets that opportunity when her father (Kevin Kline, still a treasure) is kidnapped by a Beast (Dan Stevens) living in a cursed castle deep in the forests, so deep it's an entirely different season there. When Belle goes to rescue him, she agrees to stay so her father can be freed.

"Never trust a book by its cover" is the fertile ground upon which this love story is built. Nobody is as they seem, with the exception of oafish, pig-headed brute Gaston (Luke Evans), who will stop at nothing to marry Belle. As for the Beast, turns out he's not such a bad guy despite being big, hairy, fangy, and occasionally screamy. He and Belle connect over their mutual love of books, and for being misfits to the outside world.  And when that outside world begins interfering in their developing love, it brings hatred and fear of "the other", with Gaston literally leading a crowd of torch-bearers to destroy that which they haven't tried to understand. Perhaps there's a modern metaphor to be found in all of this, after all, considering our current political climate.

It's the story you know with only a few changes, some minor and some that have a huge impact on the narrative. A lot has been made of Gaston's loyal sidekick Lefou (Josh Gad) being revealed as gay, but other than a few tweaks he's essentially played the same way. The biggest turn out to also be the darkest. A greater emphasis is put on the Beast's former household staff transformed into talking knick-knacks: Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and Chip (Nathan Mack). If the Beast's curse isn't broken, not only will he be stuck as a creature forever, but they will essentially die. It raises the bar and there are some truly heart-wrenching scenes where they confront a bleak future as old rubbish, but it does seem unnecessarily gloomy for an overall hopeful story. We also see quite a bit more of the Beast's childhood, which includes an abusive, resentful father; and also learn more of Belle and what caused her to be the child of a single parent. Gaston, while still a source of egotistical comic relief early on, is also more deadly here than he ever was before, especially toward's Belle's father. That's how a screenplay that is basically lifted direct from Linda Woolverton's 1991 script somehow equals a 2-hour+ movie when it didn't before.

Every emotional beat, every sparkling romantic moment is as you remember it, brought to life with astonishingly beautiful production values that spring from the screen. If you thought everything in Cinderella looked like it was made out of wedding cake, or like it was lifted straight from a storybook, Beauty and the Beast is even better. The visuals are an almost slavish recreation of what came before, right down to the choreography on the many musical numbers. Every song works in the same way they did before, although some of the new ones leave much to be desired. It might've been a good idea to stick to the script in those cases. But the numbers work, and Kondon deserves credit for staging them in a way that doesn't have you missing the freedom animation offers. In particular, "Gaston" proves to be a lot of fun and allows Gad and Evans the opportunity to showoff their skills, honed for years on the theatre stage. Kline, too, is right at home, while Watson and Stevens don't measure up to their more-experienced counterparts.  It almost isn't fair to have ANYBODY else singing when you've got Audra McDonald cutting loose, and thankfully we get to hear a lot from her toward's the conclusion.

Where Watson and Stevens really shine is in the romance itself. Watson's Belle is smart, plucky, and capable of standing up for herself, and she can waltz with the best (or beast) of them. There's no attempt to recreate Belle or make her more contemporary and they don't really need to. Her qualities, and the transformative love she finds with the Beast, are and always will be timeless, just as Beauty and the Beast will remain timeless whether you think this remake needs to exist or not.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5