Review – Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Well, here we have a big one.  It seems like awareness of the new Beauty and the Beast live-action adaptation from acclaimed musical director Bill Condon has permeated every corner of our existence.  From the trailer dropping and scoring a record number of views to the latest controversy surrounding LeFou’s (Josh Gad) sexual orientation, the film certainly has the world talking.

I had previously made the bold prediction that this film would end up as the highest-grossing live-action film of all-time that is titled under the Disney brand.  In order to do that, it must top the $1,066,179,725 worldwide total earned by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest back in the summer of 2006.

That’s a lofty goal, but it’s certainly possible.  With all of the obvious consumer interest and market penetration, combined with the love and fondness for the 1991 animated classic (the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  There have been just two others in the years since – Up and Toy Story 3 – but only Beauty and the Beast pulled it off when there were still only five nominees.), the potential is there.  After all, last year’s live-action Disney version of The Jungle Book finished its worldwide run with $966,550,600 so I reason that Beauty and the Beast is likely to at least top that film.  One has to briefly wonder if the recent controversy will affect its performance at the box office, but, typically, controversy creates cash (except in more damaging cases, such as the fake news story that recently crippled A Dog’s Purpose), so it will be fun to see what happens.  Also, a movie will always make more money if it’s good than it will if it’s bad, and reviews have been solid, but not overwhelmingly enthusiastic.  So, what’s my take?

In short: almost-overwhelmingly enthusiastic.  When Disney’s live-action adaptation of Cinderella was released in 2015, I left the theater deflated and underwhelmed.  It wasn’t a bad movie; it was just bare-bones.  There was no energy, no creativity, no extra thought put into it in order to make it stand on its own when compared to its animated predecessor.  It was a C paper when I was expecting an A paper.  I have yet to read any complete reviews of 2017’s Beauty and the Beast (I always wait until I write my own), but I had picked up the impression that this was possibly going to be a repeat of that situation, where the film would be what we saw in 1991’s animated version, only in live-action  (maybe even a shot-for-shot remake a la Gus Van Sant’s 1998 version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho).  After Disney put out an excellent live-action adaptation of their Jungle Book, last year, and considering that 1991’s Beauty and the Beast is possibly my favorite animated film (it’s in a constant battle with Frozen), that would have been pretty crushing.  Happily, I can say that I needn’t have been concerned.  The 2017 version is hopelessly devoted to the beloved original while also bringing enough fresh moments and modern sensibility to allow itself its own identity.

The moments you want to see are there.  The songs you want to hear are there, and some of them are even extended (no “Human Again”, though, for those of you who enjoyed that previously cut tune that was re-inserted back into the re-release and home video version of the original film.  There is a new song that echoes many of the same sentiments as that one, however.).  But everything is fleshed out and . . . I’ll say adjusted . . . in order to fit within a fully-realized, live-action environment.  The characters are very much the characters you’ve been watching over and over since 1991, but now they’re also more.  They’re rounder.  They’re more complex.  They’re deeper.  They have backstory and history.  They’re, quite simply (and appropriately), more real.  Maurice (Belle’s father, played by Kevin Kline) and LeFou probably benefit the most from this, but Belle (Emma Watson), the Beast (Dan Stevens), and Gaston (Luke Evans) are all more fully realized, with additional motivations and layers that are afforded by the live-action medium (an animated film in 1992 wasn’t going to be gifted a two-hour running time).

That’s not all, though.  There are new songs (the best is a heartbreaking number by the Beast), new jokes and gags (one of them genuinely laugh-out-loud funny), and even a new subplot to help the supporting characters shine.  Much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the original version, and you’ll be able to sing along with the songs you love (though don’t, unless you’re watching at home.  That’s rude.).  The songs are sometimes slowed down with extra measures of score in order to allow time to replicate cherished sight gags from the 1991 version that simply can’t occur as quickly in live-action as they can in animation.  But Condon finds a way to get them in.  He clearly understands the audience and loves the original film, but also manages to put his own personal stamp on this new one.

Let’s talk about Emma Watson.  This . . . I almost typed “girl”, but that’s no longer the case, is it?  This woman grew up before all of our eyes as she filmed the Harry Potter films.  I always had a concern in the back of my mind that she would forever be so strongly associated with Hermione Granger that she wouldn’t get a chance to escape the young wizard’s shadow.  (Think Christopher Reeve and Superman.)  From the beginning, she was easily the most gifted actor of the entire Hogwarts student body and I felt happy for her tonight as I saw her coming into her own as Belle.  She and Belle aren’t twins, but she absolutely embodies the spirit of the character.  I never once thought that I was watching Hermione; Watson is Belle, without question.  And when she is on-screen, the lavish settings, colorful supporting characters, and her monstrous co-star vanish into the background as she commands the attention of the audience.  There’s a sense of freedom to her performance that’s irresistibly infectious.  With this film, she matures.  She’s radiant.  Emma Watson is a bona fide star, now.

The rest of the cast is strong, as well, if not quite as effervescent as Ms. Watson.  Kline is remarkably empathetic as Maurice.  Evans is positively repulsive as Gaston (in a good way!).  Stevens is at once stoic and powerful as the Beast.  Gad is fantastic comic relief as LeFou (and that moment you’ve been hearing about?  Not that it should matter, but it’s gone in the blink of an eye.  Also gone in the blink of an eye?  All of your sweet, sweet Beauty and the Beast money, that one theater in Alabama.).  Ewan MacGregor does fantastic voice work as Lumiere the candelabra.  And I was glad to see Ian McKellan as Cogsworth; maybe he’ll finally find that breakout role and make something of himself and his young career.  All of them perfectly toe the line between grounding their characters for live-action and being just ebullient enough to remain larger than life.

I have to admit that I felt the energy of the film drop a bit after the first act.  At the beginning – particularly during the performance of “Belle”, the opening number that most of you are familiar with – the film is absolutely permeated with an undeniable electricity that transforms the picture from a movie into a genuine event.  I was genuinely swept away by the film.  Once Belle gets to the castle, the ardor drops from a level ten to about a level eight.  I’m not exactly sure why and it’s entirely possible that it was all in my head and others won’t get the same feeling.  It’s an intangible that I can’t yet put my finger on.  Other than that, I could nitpick a thing or two (I’m not crazy about Lumiere’s character design, for example), but in the grand scheme of it all, how much weight do those nitpicks really hold?

When the credits rolled, the audience at my screening applauded.  That’s all I need to know.  People are going to love this film and it’s going to rake in a lot of money.  I’m sticking to my prediction; I think it will top Dead Man’s Chest and become the highest-grossing Disney-branded live-action film in history.  If so, it’s due to the one-two punch of Condon’s vision and Watson’s heartfelt performance.  The nostalgia for the original is only good for the opening weekend.  If audiences keep coming back, it’s because of Watson.  I’m anxious to next see her alongside my favorite actor Tom Hanks in The Circle.  I hope that film can break out and be another hit for both of them.  Until then, be Disney’s guest and don’t miss out on being part of the biggest movie event of the year, so far!

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