“Beauty and the Beast” became the centerpiece of Disney’s animation renaissance, and the first animated film to secure an Oscar nomination for best picture. A quarter-century later, the live-action version sumptuously holds up to that legacy, delicately expanding upon and updating the original in enormously crowd-pleasing fashion.
Director Bill Condon (a musical veteran who worked on “Dreamgirls” and “Chicago”) certainly hasn’t reinvented the wheel. Still, “Beauty” rolls along like a well-oiled machine, augmented by new music, fleshed-out backstories for the principals and Josh Gad’s scene-stealing turn as the toadying LeFou, whose much-ballyhooed gayness – an overblown controversy if there ever was one – is played with a combination of sweetness and subtlety.
Visually speaking, not everything is perfection, from the design of the Beast himself (“Downton Abbey’s” Dan Stevens) to the revised computer-generated look of certain members of his menagerie of servants, voiced by the likes of Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson and Audra McDonald.
For the most part, though, the action hums along, instilling renewed emotional heft in the film’s last act. And while “The Jungle Book” was already a major hit, this “Beast” looks destined to dwarf those returns, with parents weaned on the story likely to eagerly share it with their kids.
Most prominently, “Harry Potter’s” Emma Watson cuts a radiant figure as Belle, the village girl who dreams of a life beyond her small provincial town. While Watson might not possess what amounts to a Broadway belt, like the stars of “La La Land,” she’s more than adequate on the score, and brings a genuine richness to the romance despite the impediments associated with gazing into the eyes of a towering CGI character.
The outline remains unchanged, as Belle pursues her slightly dotty dad (Kevin Kline) into the woods, where the Beast has imprisoned him for inadvertently invading his domain. Agreeing to take his place, she gradually and grudgingly bonds with her captor, without knowing that falling in love with him would be the only way to break the curse cast over him and all who reside there.
Beyond the familiar tunes by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, the film includes several originals, the best being a “Les Mis”-type number for the Beast, in this version the beneficiary of further information that helps explain the hardened heart that got him into this fix. There’s something poignant, as well, about the servants being keenly aware of gradually losing their humanity, faced with the prospect of becoming nothing more than candlesticks and clocks.
The casting is an enormous asset. Gad provides welcome humor as LeFou, and Luke Evans – more overtly channeling Lancelot’s musical braggadocio – perfectly captures the boorish villain Gaston, who sees Belle as little more than another prize to be hunted.
While there’s a certain obligatory quality to the staging, Condon has brought true buoyancy to several of the numbers, from Belle’s introductory song – which, in live action, looks more conspicuously like an homage to “The Sound of Music” – to an appropriately rousing rendition of “Be Our Guest.”
Admittedly, there’s something rather crass on paper, at least, about raiding the Disney animation archives to reboot every beloved property, having already put “Jungle Book” and “Cinderella” through the process. Anything with built-in brand equity, it seems, can’t be left alone.
Setting corporate imperatives aside, though, the film handsomely stands on its own. And there’s even something timely about small-minded villagers fearing that which they don’t understand, a theme also prominently explored in the studio’s recent animated hit “Zootopia.”
All told, one needn’t possess a magic mirror to see gargantuan returns in “Beauty and the Beast’s” future, inspiring more adaptations. If all of Disney’s live-action efforts are as exceptional as this one, by all means, be our guest.
“Beauty and the Beast” opens March 17 in the U.S. It’s rated PG. (Disclosure: My wife works for a division of Disney.)