As sweet and lovely as Disney’s 1991 animated film “Beauty and the Beast” is, the story has some, um, inconsistencies. Belle somehow manages to get an injured, beaten Beast up on a horse to bring back to the castle. There is a painting of an adult Prince that could not possibly have been painted. And how is it that the local village has no knowledge of an enchanted castle just a short ride away? All of these issues, thankfully, are addressed in the live-action remake of the film, and the emotional stakes are raised quite a bit in the finale (though not in the manner that you might think). The production design is gorgeous, Belle’s yellow dress is as stunning as Cinderella’s blue dress in the 2015 remake of that film, and Emma Watson is an inspired choice to play Belle, and is quite the singer as well.
The movie takes a while to find its rhythm, though. The three biggest musical numbers in the movie’s first half bite off more than they can chew, as if Disney had told director Bill Condon, “Just ask yourself: what would Baz Luhrmann do? And then ask us if we think Baz would do that, and we’ll tell you whether or not you’re right.” Condon captures the excessiveness of a Luhrmann number but not its energy, and that is a very important distinction. The movie’s second half, though, is much better. The relationship between Belle and the Beast comes into focus, and one small cameo makes a world of difference in the end.
In a rural area of France, a vain, shallow prince (Dan Stevens), who is somehow not a king despite having lost both of his parents, throws lavish parties and is all about appearances. One night, during one of those parties, a haggard old woman barges in and asks if he will give her shelter. Disgusted by her appearance, he refuses, but she warns him that beauty comes from within. When he rejects her a second time, she transforms into a beautiful enchantress and curses his castle and all who live in it for their superficial ways. The enchantress gives the prince a magical rose as a reminder of his mistake. He has until the last petal falls to know love and be loved in return, or he will spend the rest of his life as a monster.
In a nearby village, lovely bookworm Belle (Watson) endures a safe and rather dull existence with her widowed inventor father Maurice (Kevin Kline). The village’s resident hunk, the boorish Gaston (Luke Evans), wants to marry Belle simply because she’s the prettiest girl in town, but she refuses all of his advances. Maurice leaves town to sell some wares but stumbles upon the Beast’s castle, and the Beast takes Maurice prisoner. Maurice’s horse returns to his house, and Belle rides to the castle to offer herself in exchange for her father. The Beast is shocked by this, as it’s the most selfless act he’s ever witnessed, but he agrees. The plan is for Belle to spend the rest of her life in a cell in a tower, but the Beast’s cursed wait staff are not about to let their best shot at breaking the spell languish in a tower cell.
Most of the characters in the castle stay true to their animated origins (Emma Thompson, as Mrs. Potts, even replicates the accent of the original Mrs. Potts, Angela Lansbury), though Stevens’ Beast is not as beastly as his predecessor. Since he wasn’t transformed as a tween, this Beast received a full, proper education, and while he’s obviously not happy about his predicament, he’s much less volatile and worldlier. The townsfolk, however, are another story. Watson’s Belle has a chip on her shoulder. If animated Belle was self-deprecating to a fault, Watson takes great pleasure in refusing Gaston’s advances. (This chip was earned too, and there is a jarring, anti-women scene to prove it.) Likewise, Kline’s Maurice is not the “harmless crackpot” of the original, either. His Maurice is still heartbroken over the death of Belle’s mother but is no pushover.
This brings us to Josh Gad’s LeFou (French translation: “The Fool”). LeFou is clearly as in love with Gaston as all of the other maidens not named Belle, but he is not merely the closeted gay friend. This Fool is no sycophant; indeed, he’s much smarter than Gaston, smart enough to know that he doesn’t have a shot with Gaston but has fun trying to confuse his handsome but feeble-minded friend from time to time, while dishing some sound advice on why Belle is immune to Gaston’s charms. It’s a bold choice, especially for a Disney film, but it absolutely works.
There are things that each version of “Beauty and the Beast” does better than the other. Knowing this up front, strangely, will make for a more enjoyable viewing experience here. The adoration that the filmmakers have for the source material is apparent – there are several moments where pieces of dialogue, and camera shots, are lifted straight from the animated film – but at the same time, they recognize that these are different times, and that calls for a different film. The original, despite its storytelling shortcomings, is the better, more consistent film (it was the first animated film nominated for Best Picture for a reason), but at the same time, the present-day updates are most welcome.