Magical is the first word that comes to mind when describing Disney’s latest live-action princess movie remake. “Beauty and the Beast” captivates young audiences with its stunning effects and scenery while respecting the story adults know and love with a more nuanced punch than the original. The sets are incredible, from the bourgeois palace dripping with golden decadence to the tiny little village, bursting at the seams with boisterous bakers, frugal farmers and mini Marie Antoinettes. Alliteration aside, “Beauty and the Beast” brings every child’s storybook hero to life beyond the flatness of animation into the real-life fantasy of live-action.
Our story begins in France, at a “Phantom of the Opera” style masquerade, completely decked out with towering white wigs, extravagant gowns and Stanley Tucci (“Hunger Games”) playing the Harpsicord. We know what happens next: The handsome, selfish prince is turned into a monstrous beast by a sorceress who vows he will stay that way until he learns how to love another person. Days turn into years and the once lively, vibrant palace turns into a lonely, gray and decrepit wasteland. We then turn to Belle (the brilliant Emma Watson, “Harry Potter”), who wanders her little town in search of something less “provincial.” Belle’s beloved father Maurice, played by the always exceptional Kevin Kline (“The Big Chill”), takes off for the market but gets lost on his way, ending a tumultuous journey at the Beast’s abandoned castle. When Maurice’s horse returns to Belle alone, she takes charge and goes after her father, who has been taken captive by the Beast. In an act of fearlessness, Belle takes her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner. While she is a prisoner, Belle never lets herself become a victim. She is strong-willed and poised, and has no problem saying “No.”
Belle befriends the household staff-turned-magical objects whose performance of “Be Our Guest” is as mesmerizing as it is entertaining. The all-star cast of enchanted housewares put personality and style into their animated inanimate personas. Ewan McGregor’s (“Big Fish”) Lumiere and Ian McKellen’s (“Lord of the Rings”) Cogsworth are charming and full of clever banter. Also, Emma Thompson (“Love Actually”) is the perfect combination of stubborn and caring as Mrs. Pots. Slowly but surely, something that wasn’t there before begins to take place between Belle and the Beast. Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) as the Beast is easy to anger, but intelligent and caring. The beastly friendship takes form over conversations about poetry and literature, bonding over similar tastes in table manners, and a hilarious snowball fight. Meanwhile, in the village, Luke Evans (“Dracula”) as Gaston and his trusted partner Le Fou (“Frozen” ’s Josh Gad), put on a delightful performance in the local pub. The scene is lively fun, complete with a tabletop tap number and Gad’s recognizable vocals that couldn’t help but evoke his animated alter ego, Olaf the snowman.
We all know how it ends; there is a dance (it’s stunning) and a fight (it’s scary) and suspense and tears and the final petal, and then happily ever after. While the story is easily summarized and not at all new, it still manages to absorb the audience. Belle is reminiscent of Disney’s original Princess, but more empowered than her 1991 counterpart. Watson’s Belle is not simply the bookish daughter of a kooky inventor, rather an inventor in her own right. She is confident; not naive, complex, not simple. The Beast is not simply an angry loner, but a victim of bad parenting and high society. The Beast is brought to life even more with the computer graphics that make him, at times, more human than beast. Le Fou is not simply a blind follower of Gaston, but a man in love with a man in love with himself. Gad perfectly captures Disney’s first foray into representing a gay character on screen with his remarkable performance and subtle hints at his love for Gaston. As for Gaston, his character is the classic example of villainous incitement. He riles up the town to destroy anything that threatens their sameness.
Overall, “Beauty and the Beast” is an enchanting experience that will please children and adults alike. The film is able to capture the fantasy of the story, the whimsy of the cartoon, all the while addressing topics of empowerment, diversity and sexuality. “Beauty and the Beast” proves its worth as a tale as old as time, and it is certainly worth yours.