Twenty six years after the release of the animated film, Disney have revisited ‘Beauty and the Beast’ once again to give it the ever-popular live-action makeover. Fronted by Harry Potter star Emma Watson and Downton Abbey heartthrob Dan Stevens, the modern remake breathes new life into the eighteenth century fairy-tale with its vibrant and faithful portrayal.
With ‘Beauty and the Beast’ being my favourite of the Disney Princess collection of films, I was excited to see if this release lived up to the hype. Much like sequels, live-action remakes are generally either big hits or massive flops depending on whether the strength of the story justifies the production of a new film. Disney’s retelling of ‘The Jungle Book’ last year is probably the company’s strongest live-action remake so far, thanks to the combination of eye-catching visuals and fearless approach to tweaking a classic story. It followed in the footsteps of 2015’s ‘Cinderella’ which charmed viewers with it’s great heart and feeling of empowerment while still remaining devoted to the narrative of the animated film.
So, has ‘Beauty and the Beast’ continued Disney’s growing run of live-action successes? For the most part, yes.
The events of this new release sync up pretty acurately with that of the original film, with various new elements added in to bulk up the story. The opening narrative of the prince’s transformation is shown onscreen as opposed to just being told, giving the audience more of an insight into his beastly personality from the start. What’s more, an explanation is given as to why the Beast’s castle and its inhabitants go unnoticed after the spell was cast, filling in one of the plot holes present in the animated movie. Later scenes that show the budding relationship between the two central characters have also been extended and multiplied in comparison to the 1991 release, creating the sense of more time passing within the film. Given how quickly – and unrealistically – Belle and the Beast fall in love in the story, this is a much-welcome change.
While the film remains faithful to its original text, it’s the musical numbers that really allow this remake to shine. Admittedly it’s clear in places that certain people were cast for their fame and acting ability as opposed to their voice, but that adds a level of realism to the performance that is often lost by the fantastical elements of some of the bigger tracks. The most notable of those? ‘Be Our Guest’, of course, with it’s eccentric, surreal CGI trickery that works hard to outdo the epic visual display from the animated film. The enchanting song is one of the most beloved in Disney’s discography, alongside the emotive title track ‘Beauty and the Beast’. The rendition performed by Emma Thompson in this film is wonderfully poignant and is a beautiful accompaniment to the well-known ballroom scene. Those three minutes of the remake are utter perfection.
Not every track recorded for this film was present in the animation. Songs including the tearful ‘How Does A Moment Last Forever’ and the powerful ‘Evermore’ were written and composed for use in the remake, though it feels like they’ve always belonged in the soundtrack. The thoughtfulness that went into the lyrics shows a level of care that is required to make a musical stand out, and it’s ballads like these which give a nice balance to some of the heartier tracks. They’re almost necessary sometimes to tone down the musical numbers which can get a little full of themselves. It’s not a frequent occurrence, but there are definitely moments when it feels as though more effort was put into the outlandish display of musicality than the rest of the film.
Of course, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a musical at heart and the theatricality never takes away from the love and intensity of the plot. That in part is thanks to the strong performance of the cast, in particular those in the supporting role. While Emma Watson, Dan Stephens and Luke Evans all portray their respective characters excellently, it’s those who share their spotlight that make the film a lot more enjoyable to watch. The servants feel a lot more united in this remake than in the animation, and their quips are both comedic and charming. Even though most people in the audience know the film has a happy ending, the moment where the servants become inanimate and essentially die is heart-wrenching because of how easy these characters are to love. It’s one of the most powerful moments I’ve seen onscreen in a long time.
Even more of a delight in the cast is Josh Gad who plays Ganon’s faithful sidekick LeFou. The character is fairly distasteful in the 1991 release, but Gad manages to reverse that and make him one of the highlights of this film. His portrayal as the suggestively-gay best friend is appropriate for someone with that level of enthusiasm for another man, even if it sometimes borders on being offensively-stereotypical. The character has caused controversy in some countries due to a couple of scenes which suggest too explicitly that LeFou is homosexual, something to which this reviewer applauds Disney. Small steps like this shouldn’t be such a big deal in this day and age, but they are, and for the company to have been this bold is great to see. It certainly paves the way for greater inclusion in the future, no matter what some people may think.
Unfortunately, no movie is perfect, and just like every other film out there ‘Beauty and the Beast’ has it’s downfalls. At times, the pacing seemed slightly off, most noticeably in the beginning. The film drifts along quite contently until the action kicks off, at which point it suddenly feels as though it needs to speed up in order to make the allocated run time. The transition from Maurice being captured by the Beast to Belle taking his place happens in no time at all, but then after that the film is no longer in such a hurry.
Where the movie really falters, however, is in its ability to move outside of the realms of the original story. Although the 2014 release ‘Maleficent’ wasn’t the strongest of films, it’s unique perspective of the Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale through the eyes of the villain made it a pioneer of something new and exciting that would’ve excelled with some adjustments. Not every Disney film lends itself to be retold in such a way, but ‘Beauty and the Beast’ certainly had the potential of being envisioned in a way that would have subverted many expectations. The remake even teases that possibility within the film.
Roughly two thirds of the way through, the enchanted servants make mention of the Beast’s childhood and the way his personality changed without his mother around. This led in to the performance of ‘Days in the Sun’ – one of the new songs composed for the remake – which features a shot of the young prince singing over the body of his dead mother. Watching that, I couldn’t help but think that Disney might have been on to something if they’d shown the audience more of a background to the Beast’s life. Much like Maleficent, the film could still have featured the major events of the original story, but provided the audience a fresh new perspective on the world and characters that they’ve come to love.
Considering that the servants were one of the highlights of both this film and the animated one, a movie that showed us how they coped in the castle before and after their transformations would have been interesting to see. It certainly would have been more preferable than watching a misogynistic town bully a young woman for being literate, especially given we’re supposed to be living in the progressive twenty-first century. This insight would probably make the servants insistence that the Beast is a gentle soul more believable, and make his sudden change in personality halfway through seem less abrupt.
Ultimately, though, this latest remake of Disney’s back-catalogue is one of the company’s strongest, even if it doesn’t try too hard to refresh the classic format. The extravagant musical numbers revive a sense of nostalgia that is exceedingly popular right now, and despite being classics they come across as brand new on the soundtrack. The film is confident in its ability to put a smile on your face, just as it is to pull at your heartstrings, but despite the rollercoaster ride it’s a worthwhile experience. Nobody should miss out on this beautiful remake.