The tale is “as old as time”, as the song goes, but Beauty and the Beast isn’t a day over 26 – the number of years since the release of the animated musical that inspired this live action movie.
The current Disney production is a slavishly faithful and stubbornly old-fashioned reworking of the 1991 animated blockbuster of the same name. The plot remains slim and many of the songs and sight gags are repeats from the original film, as are nearly all the memorable side characters. The real achievement of Bill Condon’s 2017 production is its ability to replicate the complicated kinetic movements, visual effects and grand production design of the original film.
Emma Watson is a feeble Belle, barely convincing as the great beauty who transfixes and transforms Beast, while the monster is as cuddly as he was in the cartoon version. But Condon spectacularly compensates by creating one dazzling sequence after the next, conjuring up vividly choreographed scenes and moments that provide welcome distractions from the overly familiar story.
The most radical idea in Condon’s version is that LeFou, the sidekick of the arrogant chauvinist Gaston, is gay, and as much in lust with Gaston as Gaston is with Belle. LeFou (Josh Gad) makes cow eyes at the dashing Gaston (Luke Evans) and sighs when his friend tries to conquer Belle despite her disinterest. But LeFou’s sexuality is ultimately as mild as Belle’s independent streak and lack of prejudice, which allows her heart to start thumping for a beast that is a cross between an American bison and a minotaur.
Based on Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s French story La Belle et la Bête in 1740, the story has been adapted many times, most memorably by Jean Cocteau in 1946. Belle is a merchant’s daughter who takes her father’s place as Beast’s prisoner, and she soon learns that a heart of gold lurks beneath the layers of fur. Cocteau’s movie had a grown-up Belle who matched the lonesome beast in size and stature. Watson’s Belle is a barely grown-up post-teen who fits snugly into the misshapen animal’s huge paws. Belle’s transformation from adversary to lover is as smooth and seamless as the swirling camera movements that showcase the gorgeous sets and costumes.
Neither Belle nor Beast was the most important character as far as fans of the animated film were concerned. Beast (Dan Stevens) was a handsome prince cursed into ugliness along with the staff at his castle, and they retain their human speech despite becoming part of the furniture. The voice cast of the anthropomorphised household objects has tremendous fun bringing warmth and cheer to the gloomy castle – Ewan McGregor is the candelabra Lumiere, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the duster Plumette, Ian McKellen is the clock Cogsworth, Emma Thompson is the teapot Mrs Potts, Nathan Mack is her son Chip and Audra McDonald is the wardrobe Madame de Garderobe. (Stanley Tucci, as the harpsichord Cadenza, is the only new addition.)
Their antics are familiar from the animated film, but their return in a new format is beautifully realised. When the spell finally lifts, their relief to be human again is the most affecting passage in a film that is perfectly calibrated to deliver a stunning spectacle rather than a romance for the ages. The filmmakers know better than to take the overall message of deceptive appearances seriously.