After taking over the Twilight series six years ago for its final two installments, director Bill Condon has finally gotten his hands on the true Beauty and the Beast story, and man, does he do it justice. With a hard-hitting cast, magnificently sweeping musical numbers, a classic love story and Disney sparing no expense, Condon’s take on the tale is nothing short of magical and is a truly immersive experience from start to finish. Likewise, Emma Watson proves herself to be a tailor-made Disney princess and simply glows as Belle, creating a new feminist hero moving far beyond the reaches of the original 1991 animated film.
Beauty and the Beast retells the classic story of Belle (Watson), a girl longing for adventure, love, and to break free from the small-minded feel of her provincial French village. In Condon’s version of the tale, written by author Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War), Belle lives alone with her father (Kevin Kline), a tinkerer. She is infamous in her village as being unordinary, partly because her head is always in a book, and also partly because she seems to be the only person uncharmed by the whims of the town’s overly machismo and narcissistic war hero Gaston (Luke Evans). After her father goes missing on one of his regular trips, Belle goes after him to find him taken prisoner at the castle of the Beast (Dan Stevens). Belle sacrifices herself to take her father’s place and soon immerses herself into the Beast’s world, cursed long ago by an enchantress hoping to rid the castle’s greedy and narcissistic prince of his base humanity. With the curse only to be broken by mutual love, Belle may be the last remaining hope for the Beast and the castle’s inhabitants.
“Feminist hero” is not a phrase I take lightly (nor Emma Watson, probably); however, the writers truly have done a fantastic job in reinventing the story while remaining true to the original. The new Belle is not given false strength, and has not become some kind of warrior or unrealistic Mary Sue. Her feminist quality is built up largely through the extrapolation of her already embedded character traits — those being her compassion, acceptance, and the unfettered pursuit of her heart’s desire. Watson’s Belle is strong in her convictions and uses them as weapons against the obstacles she meets. Watson, in turn, is sure-footed as Belle, and imbues a constant vulnerability conducive to her big heart and propensity for love.
Her romantic opposite, the Beast, is particularly impressive in his own right. Looking past what Beauty and the Beast cynics may say about the Stockholm Syndrome-esque plot, it should be said once and for all that this is a twisted perspective. Particularly, in this version, the Beast and Belle’s similar paralleled backstories introduce a new form of relation and empathy between the two characters that may not have been there before. Belle teaches the Beast about moral and ethical humanity through an unconditional love that he had been deprived of until then. Now, the only aspect of the Beast the audience may need to get past is some of the chuckle worthy beast-ier moments.
The film’s costume, makeup, animation, and props departments may be the real heroes in that regard, making the Beast reminiscent of the animated version while making him as human-like as possible, and allowing Stevens to insert himself into the character, behind all of the fur. The realism is most prominent in the famous “Beauty and the Beast” ballroom dance scene. Having Stevens in costume, on stilts, dancing with the much smaller in stature Watson is a sight to be believed. The scene is pure magic and is owed large in part to Condon’s dedication to the live-action medium, as well as Belle’s mesmerizing dress.
Equally (if not more) spellbinding are the film’s high-production musical scenes. Watson and Stevens both prove to be impressive vocally and bring the depth and excitement of musical theater to their performances. Additions like Josh Gad (Frozen) as LeFou, Audra McDonald (TV’s The Sound of Music Live!) as Madame Garderobe, Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge) as Lumiere, and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts are all enlivened standouts in their respective roles, bringing spirit, comedy, and professional-level singing to the story outside of the love story. Gad, in particular, brings the heat to his character and makes the eye-roll worthy Gaston scenes entirely bearable. Over at the castle, the alive furniture and antiques ride a perfect line between their object reality and the human features and characteristics their clinging onto. This is especially clear during the “Be Our Guest” number, another successful feat by the animation department. There are a lot of new elements in the film, – new songs, new backstories, and newly heightened production – however, Condon’s live-action take is a natural progression of the 1991 film, and a celebratory remake (regardless of unnecessary hooplah over one mildly gay moment).
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Be ready for a splendidly gothic love story with all of the light and joy of Disney. Condon has gotten to the heart of Beauty and the Beast, and along with Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, has brought the characters to vibrant life for a new generation. The production value has set new highs for Disney’s live-action slate, and the musical numbers will have you dancing in your seat and humming to yourself long after the film ends. Belle, the unlikely princess, has been reinvented for modern audiences, with Watson coming out on top as the film’s fearless leader.