It’s a tale as old as time, but “Beauty and the Beast” never ceases to give me the warm fuzzies — even if it’s just Disney converting another of its beloved animated titles into a live-action cash grab. I dug “Cinderella,” but “Beauty” is my all-time favorite. What’s not to love about Belle, the “beauty” of the title? She’s French, loves books, is an inventor and wants more out of life than her tiny “provincial” village offers. Outspoken feminist and activist Emma Watson is the perfect casting choice to transform Belle into a modern girl-power heroine. Brainy? Yes. But she’s the total package. Her smile is infectious, and can she ever rock a golden taffeta frock.
Disney’s story might be rooted in the past, but in adapting the 1991 double Oscar-winner, director Bill Condon adds some progressive updates — including a gay character — to make the new film live and breathe on its own. Neither Condon nor Watson ever let the fearless and independent Belle become a helpless damsel. Even when she’s a prisoner in the Beast’s castle, Belle still has a voice. She’s empowered.
That gravitas extends to a stellar cast that includes “Downton Abbey” hunk Dan Stevens as the new Beast, dreamy Luke Evans (a tall drink of narcissism) as Belle’s arrogant suitor Gaston, Josh Gad is his admiring (wink, wink) pal LeFou, and Kevin Kline is Belle’s doting and devoted dad, Maurice. The various tuneful supporting bric-a-brac and baubles are played by Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Nathan Mack (Chip), Audra McDonald (Madame Garderobe), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (the sexy Plumette) and Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza).
For the uninitiated, “Beauty and the Beast,” tells the story of two outcasts whose love has the power to reverse a curse. The brooding Beast was once a prince until an ill-tempered witch (Haydn Gwynne) transformed him. So selfish, rude and unkind is the prince that all of his servants, too, must pay the price for his arrogance and are thus turned into talking teapots, clocks and candlesticks. But they’ll all return to human form if the hideous Beast and beautiful Belle can find true love together — before time runs out and the last rose petal drops. The story may be lacking in intellectual depth and emotional complexity, but there’s a clear narrative and enough amusing gimmicks and spectacular effects to beguile even the most jaded.
Condon (“Gods and Monsters”), working from a script by Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”), directs with flair, especially the crowd-pleasing Alan Menken tunes and the jubilant grand finale that might make you want to dance in the aisle. All the original songs are here, and Menken penned three more for the update. But none are as catchy as the Oscar-winning title song that’s still stuck in my head more than a week after seeing the film. McGregor, Thompson, Mbatha-Raw and McKellen are a hoot on “Be Our Guest,” a colorful toe-tapping number with confetti and fireworks and sparkle. Watson and Evans hold their own on “Belle” and “Gaston.” You can’t help but smile. Stevens sings the sorrowful new ballad, “For Evermore,” after Belle leaves the castle, but it’s less soaring than intended. The other two new tunes are “Our Song Lives On” and “Days In The Sun.”
Once the push-pull between Belle and the Beast ebbs, the two find common ground — they both love to read — and good things start to happen. In the end, love trumps hate. Good manners matter. Beauty is only skin deep. Those are timeworn lessons that never get old, especially when wrapped in this much wonder and fantasy.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“Beauty and the Beast)
Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci with Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson.
(PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images.)