APRIL 3, 2017
Do we really need another Disney production of “Beauty and the Beast”? That depends.
As of today, the current live-action remake of the 1991 animated classic will have grossed over $400 million in the U.S. alone in only 18 days, and it has become the hit for which the Mouse House had wished.
“Beauty and the Beast” hosts a dream cast of stars: “Harry Potter” co-star Emma Watson (Belle), “Downton Abbey” SAG nominee Dan Stevens (The Beast), as well as Oscar winners Emma Thompson (as Mrs. Potts) and Kevin Kline (as Belle’s father), 6-time Tony winner Audra McDonald (as The Wardrobe), as well as scads of Oscar & Tony nominees.
Does it supplant the 1991 animated film? My answer is probably no.
But is it worth seeing? After two viewings, my answer is definitely yes.
Let’s compare both versions:
The 1991 animated version clocked in at an economical 81 minutes while the 2017 live-action version takes 129 minutes to tell its story.
So what’s new?
The current version adds four new songs (probably so that the music will be eligible for a Best Original Song Oscar nomination), as well as a couple of lengthy flashbacks centering around the deaths of the mothers of both Belle and the Beast, thus fulfilling the contractual demand that there be a dead parent in every Disney movie. Unless you’re a fan of the plague, this is totally unnecessary padding that the film could have easily lost.
I’m sure that the voice artists in the 1991 film, Paige O’Hara and Robby Benson, are lovely people, but as actors, they can’t hold a candle to this live-action group whose skills totally justify the remake’s existence. In fact, the emotional scenes between Watson and both Stevens and Kline raise the dramatic intensity to a whole new level that few Disney family films can match.
To my mind, the only casting misfire is Luke Evans as Gaston. He has a fine theatrical voice and has the villainous side of Gaston down cold, but he completely misses the laughs that the character usually generates with his preening self-admiration. Yes, he is given those scripted bits like admiring himself in the mirror, but he has no twinkle in his eye, something that any good Gaston at a Disney theme park has in spades. (Imagine what Kline would have done with this part if the film was made 20 years ago or the laughs that Hugh Jackman could bring if the film was remade more recently.)
Thank goodness that Josh Gad is around to pick up the laugh duties. Gad perfectly gets the necessary comic tone and is terrific as LeFou, Gaston’s very very ardent admirer. And as for all that gay kerfuffle around the LeFou character, it surfaces in a couple of blink-and-you-miss-it moments, which still results in some of the biggest laughs in the movie. Really, there’s more gay innuendo in those old cartoons when Bugs Bunny wore a dress than there is in this film.
ADVANTAGE: Remake, by a mile
The original boasts one of the best song scores in recent memory with Alan Menken’s hummable tunes and the late Howard Ashman’s brilliantly witty lyrics. (The four new songs here? Much less so.) Director Bill Condon, for whatever reason, has decided to slow each song down a bit. For example, in the original film, the opening song (“Belle”) kicked the movie off with a jet-propelled tempo that got you into the film and the characters right away. Slowing the tempo down here just doesn’t provide the kind of kick that helped the opening of the original.
Still, there’s a lot to like in this wonderful remake. The production design is gorgeous, as are Jacqueline Durran’s costumes, particularly her recreation of Belle’s yellow ball gown, and the film’s choreography is right on point. Then there’s that ending — it made me mist up on my first viewing and (wouldn’t you know it?) on my second as well.
It’s not a top-to-bottom rethinking of a Disney classic the way “The Jungle Book” was last year, but there’s a very good reason why “Beauty and the Beast” should join the roster of beloved Disney films: it’s as entertaining as anyone could want.