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I get really nervous when movies or plays or books that I adore are being remade in some way. They’re perfect as-is in my head, and I question why someone is messing with them. There needs to be a reason, and for the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast there is. More than 25 years after the original animated movie, so much more can be done now thanks to advances in technology. Mixing real people with CGI is seamless. It totally works.
Before now, the Beast and his servants might have looked fake. They might have looked like CGI. It doesn’t take much: just dead eyes where there should be a twinkle of life is enough to snap me back into reality. But the art of computer-generated imagery has advanced to the point where Beauty and the Beast is able to blend real actors with CGI so well that I was able to forget about it and just enjoy the movie. The word I keep coming back to when I think about it is “magical.” Yes, I cried. Several times.
The best way to describe it is as the cartoon come to life. It’s everything you remember, but more. The story is much the same, but more detailed and with some holes filled in. The characters are all there, and perfectly cast. And characters that might have seemed…well…cartoonish in the original, such as Belle’s father Maurice, LeFou, or Gaston, are fleshed out (pun intended) and made to be more than stereotypes (the crazy old inventor, the bumbling sidekick, the handsome bully). And the household objects really seem like people: you can “see” the actors voicing them. In fact they’re so life-like that a scene near the end, as the curse takes its final hold on the servants, is just chilling.
Luke Evans, whom I interviewed last year for The Girl on the Train, was for me the standout character. He exudes a slimy charisma that has the townspeople falling all over him and falling in line behind him. And he can sing! I knew he had a history in musicals but hadn’t heard it for myself, so it was a pleasant surprise that he was so, so good. Josh Gad as his sidekick LeFou has a brain this time, unlike in the cartoon, and goes through real changes during the course of the story.
Emma Watson is excellent as Belle, just the right amount of feisty and yearning. And I understood better in this version just how she fell in love with The Beast. Part of the credit goes to her, and part, of course, goes to Dan Stevens as The Beast. He’s scary, he’s pensive, he’s sad, he’s caring, he goes through a real transformation.
The effort put into getting the animated creatures just right was enormous. Every tiny movement of Dan Stevens’ face as The Beast was captured in a process known as Mova, which gives The Beast an absolutely realistic look. (Incidentally, if you go to the Mova website right now, there’s a troubling message displayed. You can read more about what’s going on here and here.)
Another contribution to the spectacular feel of the movie is the sets. There were 27 large-scale sets created for the movie, everything from Belle’s town and the enchanted forest to the Beast’s library, dining room, and ballroom. There’s such a huge difference between standing in front of a green screen, and getting to really interact with a complicated set. The big opening song as Belle travels through the village to the bookshop involved 150 extras and a couple dozen wagons – you can’t do that effectively without an expansive set. They took the time, they spent the money, and it shows. They created a world.
The costumes deserve a mention as well. They’re just gorgeous, and so detailed.
The movie isn’t perfect. It’s too long and should have been tightened up in the middle. I thought most of the added story detail was great, but at least one of the three new songs was unnecessary. I’m almost always annoyed by whatever big number is added to a movie so that it has something original to submit to the Academy for best original song, and the song added for The Beast is no exception. There didn’t need to be a song there. It didn’t move anything along. (Unless you add a plot point, the added songs really can’t move things along. I also felt a little jarred every time a few bars of music were added to “Be Our Guest.” That number is long enough as it is.)
Another new song, sung by the household objects, is nice, and gives you a bit more of an emotional connection to them as former people, but I could take it or leave it. The most successful addition for me was the new number written for Belle’s father. Maurice gets to sing a bit in a way that really fleshes out his character, which was nice. Overall, in fact, Kevin Kline as Belle’s father was just amazing.
But the riskiest song to me was the iconic “Beauty and the Beast.” I couldn’t imagine it being sung by anybody other than Angela Lansbury. I didn’t know who made up most of the cast when I walked into the theater, and when that song started to play I couldn’t place who was singing, but it was perfect! When I found out during the credits that it was Emma Thompson, I was so happy, because I love her so much. She pulled it off better than I could have hoped.
As for the so-called controversy over there being a gay character, I’m going to leave you with the words of Ewan McGregor (who plays Lumière) the other night on The Late Show: “It’s two-thousand and seventeen, for fuck’s sake.”