I believe that the original, animated Beauty and the Beast is an unmitigated classic. It is my favorite Disney cartoon and ranks in my top ten film list of all time. So, some might say that it would be unfair judge the newly-released live-action version against the 1991 version that inspired it. But the new film not only asks for the comparison, but practically begs for it. And the new film is in the unique position of being both better than original, and not quite as good at the same time.
By now, you should know the plot. An arrogant prince (Dan Stevens) brusquely refuses shelter to a sorceress in disguise (Hattie Morahan) during a storm. This results in the prince and his servants being transformed–the servants into household items and furniture, the prince into a hideous beast. The curse can be reversed if the prince find true love before the last petal of a magical rose falls away.
Enter Belle (Emma Watson), an educated woman in a town where women of intelligence are considered weird. Belle becomes the beast’s captive, and the castle staff hopes she could be the one who could fall in love with their master and break the spell. However, Gaston (Luke Evans), a brutish military veteran with eyes on Belle himself, works to keep that from happening.
At 45 minutes longer than the original, the film would have to be different. Most of the original film is still in there, almost word for word, scene for scene and song for song. But director Bill Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos fill the additional run time with scene that make the narrative better, like they went through the original and tried to answer every lingering question or problem. Belle and the Beast share a similar tragic event in their respective past that helps bring them together, and time is spent to make their romance less Stockholm Syndrome-y and more realistic. The film also builds up the relationship between Belle and her father Maurice (Kevin Kline), making Belle wanting to take her father’s place in the Beast’s prison more heartbreakingly real. These scenes and more make this version a better story that the original.
All your favorite songs are here, some made fresh with a change of inflection here, an added line of dialogue there. There are four new songs written for the film, all composed by the original film’s composed Alan Menken with lyrics this time around by Tim Rice. All fit in seamlessly, the strongest being the mournful “Evermore.” As for the way the older songs were portrayed, “Gaston,” is improved in this one my making it a rowdier, more visceral, less-slapstick presentation. However, unfortunately, “Be Are Guest” actually suffers in comparison. It’s meant to be a show-stopping number in both, but this time around the spectacle and grandeur is handicapped by the need for the CGI renderings to be shown in near-darkness. It’s hard to be impressed by dancing tableware when you can barely see it. The Busby Berkley finish redeems it somewhat, but a lot of the magic was lost.
And what about the whole “LeFou is gay” thing? It’s pretty close to being a non-issue as it can be. My main issue with it is that at points Josh Gad dips into the mincing, stereotypical performance when dealing with the character. But for the most part the character is treated with respect. My one main concern with making this character gay was addressed–telling you how would be a spoiler–but the whole controversy was a case of making a mountain out of a molehill. For those of you engaging in hand-wringing on how you kids would take it, my wife and I took our 7-year-old daughter to see the film, and the way the ottoman turned back into a dog made more of an impact than the extremely tame “gay moment” at the end of the film. Then again, we don’t teach her to hate LGBTQ people, so your mileage may vary.
Beauty and the Beast is a weird case. The time spent on characterization makes the film far superior than the original. However, the constraints of working with whatever images computers are able to render instead of the boundless possibilities conventional animation offers the imagination makes the original far superior. Compared to any other film, it might be considered a great movie. Compared to the original, it comes up lacking. And, like I said, comparing it to the original is unavoidable.