As soon as Alan Menken’s iconic soundtrack begins, it’s hard not to get swept up in the fun and nostalgia of Disney’s new live action version of Beauty and the Beast. With a dream cast, fun songs, and familiar storyline, this 2017 version is another shining success for Disney, even if it’s destined to fall short of its 1991 animated counterpart.
Even the casting announcements for this film had me excited. After Cinderella’s corset controversy in 2015, Disney was smart to cast the intelligent and beautiful Emma Watson as Belle. An outspoken ambassador for UN Goodwill and feminist activist, Watson brings that passion to her role as the Disney princess known for being a bookworm and “funny girl”. She’s passionate enough that you cringe but forgive the heavily auto-tuned voice and a couple of overacted scenes. As the Beast, Dan Stevens is mostly heard and rarely seen, with a voice altered to appear more bestial. While his singing voice is also questionable, I was blown away by the CGI technology that allowed Stevens’ Beast to have a dynamic range of facial expressions. Having seen the film while FX’s Legion (starring Stevens) is airing, it was easy to pick up on his lopsided smiles and mischievous blue eyes.
While the two leads give admirable yet flat performances, the rest of the ensemble more than makes up the difference. Gaston (Luke Evans) continues to be one of the most comical and beloved Disney villains of all time and his iconic song with his best lackey LeFou (Frozen’s Josh Gad) is the strongest singing and choreography of the whole film. It was previously revealed by director Bill Condon that this LeFou is Disney’s first openly gay character but for all the hullabaloo, it’s a sweet but minor detail in the film. The Beast’s servants-turned-furniture provide their expected blend of comic relief and exposition. Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), Mrs. Potts (the always delightful Emma Thompson), Chip (Nathan Mack) and Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald) round out our familiar cast of characters with the fun addition of Stanley Tucci as the talking piano Maestro Cadenza, who manages to steal every scene as a human pianist smiling his best Caesar Flickman smile. Kevin Kline is perfectly good as Belle’s father Maurice, here not an inventor (that occupation falls to Belle) but a craftsman and protective father.
It’s great to see that Beauty and the Beast’s songs have stood the test of time. “Belle” still dazzles as the villagers sing about that funny girl while conveniently setting up the plot of the film. “Be Our Guest” is as visually stunning as you expect it to be while “Something There” is as sweet as ever. Menken and songwriter Tim Rice wrote four new songs for the film which are at turns sweet and fun. But c’mon, we’re all just waiting for Mrs. Potts to sing “Beauty and the Beast” while our two leads float around the ballroom. While the film stays 90% faithful to its animated original, there are just enough tweaks to keep you pleasantly surprised. As previously mentioned, Belle is now the inventor of the family and has ditched her corset and ballet flats for more practical boots. They also try to expand on Belle’s mother and what’s happened to her, but as a hardcore fan of the original, it feels more like an obvious attempt at closing a plot hole than an essential piece of the puzzle. That said, a quick explainer of how the Beast became such a horrible person didn’t distract too much and felt helpful to understanding the Beast.
Look, on the surface, it’s absolutely ridiculous (and, ok, genius) that Disney is capitalizing on millennial nostalgia and remaking their animated classics as live action. The truth will always be that the original is better, because that’s just how it works. No matter what, the live actions look clumsy next to the animated. But if you approach Beauty and the Beast with the right amount of nostalgia and low expectations, you’ll have a great fluffy time. And in this day and age fluff and joy are always appreciated.