It goes without saying, Disney knows how to market its movies. Forget simple trailers and movie posters – the Mousetakes it to the next level. (If you want a reservation to try “The Grey Stuff” at the Magic Kingdom’s Be Our Guest Restaurant, you better plan three months in advance.) While others are lining up for limited-time theme park experiences, this cynical Disney super fan lined up to give the latest live action movie a go. As both a child of the 90s and the lead costumer for my high school’s production of the 1993 Broadway musical, the tale of the independent heroine has a magical place in my heart. Disney better not disappoint!
If you are looking for the hallmark excess of a big-budget musical, the good news is that you won’t have to wait for the dazzling “Be Our Guest” number to see it. From the first ballroom scenes at the prince’s palace, you see why this live action adaption was ready to come to light. (Hint: it involves a lot of glitter. Fans of the highlighting fad sweeping the cosmetics industry: I’m looking at you!) The opening dance number rivals the intensity seen in Moulin Rouge’s frantic can-can group number which likely is this film director’s way of flexing his muscle with the live format.
The switch in format is seen nearly immediately with the first of what I feel was several extraneous CGI choices. Since we are in live-action mode and don’t have to rely on expository stained glass to introduce the Enchantress character, you can imagine my disappointment when the old woman was miraculously transformed into a swirl of gold. That’s all you’ve got? This is a world of fantasy, but I would have loved to have seen a gorgeous special effect makeup applied to a person instead. This same sentiment is also how I felt after watching two hours of the Beast. With live-action humans all around him, the creature certainly feels more human-like, but the pixels distract from the unfolding romance. I wish more consideration was given to the use of practical effects. The fantasy characters suffer because of all the striking, real details that surround them.
The care paid to both set design and costuming throughout the picture are extensive and rewarding. During your first introduction to the residents of the village, such compelling creations work wonders to quickly acclimate you to the new setting. The scene brings us the first appearance of our heroine and the village she calls home during the chorus of “Belle”. Through this familiar refrain and the unique individual styling of the villagers adds to your understanding, and appreciation, for who our heroine is and what her life like is like in this “poor provincial town”. The costumes, hair, and make-up tend to upstage the performances of the actors within them, but perhaps this is good for a showy chorus number. A quick eye may also spot a hidden mickey located on a cheeseboard carried through the scene. (See, I told you I was a super fan…)
Here too we see Emma Watson’s Belle make her entrance into the story. It would be very easy to pick apart her performance, but she really does a great job. Her voice is pleasing and she effortlessly maintains the independent spirit for which Belle is known. Honestly, aside from a few lines of corny dialogue added to this new version, Watson knocks it out of the park.
But before I go any further, let’s pause and consider if it’s even fair to compare this live action film to the 1991 Disney animated classic. Maybe not. At its core, a “beauty meets beast” story already exists in hundreds of forms. While it would be perfectly acceptable to take a departure from the critically acclaimed cartoon to make this version, Disney very willingly served up a heavy dose of nostalgia. Due in large part to the inclusion of original music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman (who passed away before ever seeing his work completed on the animated film), it’s hard to imagine this remake without their involvement. A new production of the story allowed for reworking of familiar musical phrases as well as the addition of new songs. Having some of the previously unused lyrics for “Gaston” and “Beauty and the Beast (Tale as Old as Time)” peppered in gave the classics new life.
These musical extras, however, came with mixed reviews.In one such example, the Beast sings a soaring aria, “Evermore”, as Belle returns home to save her father. Worthy of any Broadway stage, this song was poignant and performed well, but is unnecessary to the plot. The movie is already 20 minutes longer than the original and at this point, you start to feel it. As a Disney fan, I expected to hear songs from the Broadway musical (also penned by Menken, Ashman, and Tim Rice), but those didn’t make the cut. “Human Again” is schmaltzy, but would have been a fun excuse for comedic relief from the enchanted objects.
Generally speaking, it’s the work of the secondary characters, like the enchanted objects, that make this film. Kevin Kline as Maurice delivers an amazing performance that will shift your perception from the bumbling old man who lives in Belle’s basement to that of an articulate, intelligent artisan. No longer depicted as the town wackadoodle, outrage is more justified when Gaston commits him to the asylum. His performance gives depth to Belle’s character in a way we haven’t seen before. So much in fact that I didn’t mind Maurice’s new song – fresh from the department of backstory – that gave us a glimpse at the loss of Belle’s mother.
The all-star cast of enchanted objects land their punchlines with perfect comedic timing; reprising both classic zingers and adding a few new ones. Emma Thompson was a delightful surprise as Mrs. Potts and holds her own when compared to the iconic Angela Lansbury interpretation. But most surprising was the masterfully subtle performance of Gaston by Luke Evans. Yes, subtle. Very easily this role could have suffered from overacting and nauseating machismo. The machismo is present, but purposeful. We see more of the familiar characters and the narrative of their past better informs how they behave as objects, or delusional war heroes. Not to say Gaston is a character with much substance, but his lack of intelligence entertains in the best way.
Leaving the theater, I felt very satisfied, but I’m not in a rush to see it again. The realism of the live action format makes you empathize with the characters more, but I wasn’t particularly wooed by the romantic parts of the story (partially due to the CGI, I’m sure). Also, the Beast’s parkour-stunt-show-ending made me really grumpy. But looking past that blemish on a lovely film, this blockbuster will definitely make the executives and fans happy. I was pleased with what this new take offered and was thankful that gave the fans what they were looking for. Because as a certain oversized pocket watch says, “If it's not baroque don't fix it!”