To date these adaptations have been much very hit and miss with me, with the numbers favoring the misses over the hits, but I really enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Cinderella so I went to see director Bill Condon’s take on Beauty and the Beast with a decent amount of optimism, but what I was not prepared for was how much I would enjoy it. Much of this comes from Condon’s insistence that the movie remain a full musical like the animated version, all previous live action adaptation having at most given nods to the music of the originals, and also from his obvious love of the original story. Now this is far from the first live action adaption of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's eighteenth-century fairy tale; most notably is Jean Cocteau’s beautifully surreal film La Belle Et La Bete (1946) and then there was the less than successful 2014 adaptation of La Belle Et La Bete by Christoph Gans, but with this new version we get a very organic blend of both the original fairy tale and the Disneyfied version.
Though we still get Belle doing her Maria Von Trapp impression for some reason.In the original tale Belle requested that her father bring her back a rose, when he found himself lost and inside the Beast’s castle he spotted a rose bush and took one, this of course was a big mistake. The theft of the rose enraged the Beast who then imprisoned the man, and then later Belle offered to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner. In the Disney animated version the “Enchanted Rose” worked solely as a ticking clock device while in this latest version it's still enchanted, with its petals dropping off to let us know when the curse will become permanent, but they also included her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) entering the castle unmolested until he dared pluck a rose as it was in the original fairy tale. This return to the source material makes the structure of the story hold together a little better, with less arbitrary plot points and rules popping up like there were in the 1991 film.
This new version also does its best to clean up the continuity messes that the animated film was littered with; the seasons no longer flit from spring to autumn to winter and back again within days of each other where now the Beasts castle is an area locked in perpetual winter, in the animated film the curse had been going on for ten years but as the curse deadline was the Beast’s 21st birthday this would have made him eleven years old when the Enchantress cursed him for being a dick. And how many eleven year old 18th century French princes weren’t dicks? Not many is my guess. In this adaptation there is no longer a hard timeline on the curse, the Prince (Dan Stevens), while hosting a massive debutante ball, snubs a poor beggar woman who offered him a rose for a night’s shelter, who of course turns out to be an all powerful Enchantress, and he is then cursed to remain a Beast until the last petal falls from the rose. Her curse also erases the castle's existence from the minds of the villagers, which nicely covers that problem the original had of “How could a village forget about a castle that is apparently one mob march away?”
I wonder where their tax dollars went during this time period.In the original animated film Belle was a strong and smart character now in this version Belle (Emma Watson) is all those things also much more; she wants to teach the local children to read, she’s the inventor in the family not her father (he makes clocks), and she doesn’t dodge Gaston’s (Luke Evans) proposals so much as tell him to “Screw off!” We also have less of that Stockholm syndrome romance that plagued the animated version, with a running time of 129 minute we have a lot more time spent with Belle and the Beast getting to know each other while the original had enough time for one song and then they were in love. A key element in making the love story work in this version is that the Beast is more educated now, he likes to read as much as Belle does, and he's also funny and charming when not in a bestial rage.
The relationship between Belle and the Beast are not the only thing tweaked as other key characters are also fleshed out more; we get a bit of backstory about Belle’s mother and the Beast’s family, we learn that Gaston and LeFou (Josh Gad) fought together in the war (Note: Lefou is given a role beyond just comic relief and Josh Gad was a delight), and even the Enchantress (Mattie Morahan) has a more realized character this time out. With talented actors like Emma Watson and Dan Stevens I was sure we were going to get characters with more width and breadth but I was floored by how much I adored Luke Evans and his Gaston. He’s still arrogant, egotistical, narcissistic, and a bully, he wouldn’t be Gaston if he wasn’t, but he’s also not as dim as his animated version was. He’s also quite a bit more dangerous. In the 1991 animated version he didn’t really become a threat until the third act, but in this film a psychotic rage is clearly brewing below his facade of awesomeness for most of the film. Luke Evans is also incredibly funny in this role yet never letting the comedy lessening the threat he truly is. That he goes from admiring himself in the mirror to thoughts of cold blooded murder without coming off as “cartoonish” shows just how good an actor he is.
As for the music we do get all the songs from the animated version, plus a few more added for good measure, and what is surprising is that the new ones, though maybe not as catchy and memorable as the original songs, do work towards getting us inside the characters a bit more, and I’ll admit to tearing up during some of these.
Visually the film is simply stunning from Belle’s quaint provincial town to the ruins of the Beast’s castle, a visual tapestry of delight, but my one small complaint is that a couple of the characters transformed by the curse are a tad over designed. Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) do great work here in their roles but the designs for the candelabra and clock I felt to be too cluttered, while on the other hand the changes to Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and Chip (Nathan Mack) were minor and quite good. The standout design I found was for Lumiere's sweetheart Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a feather duster with a dove motif.
I won’t get into anymore spoilers about the changes but I will say what changes they did make went towards creating a more compelling story and believable characters, and before you start saying “Oh my god the original was perfect, they’ve gone and ruined a classic!” this movie still has all the key sequences from the Disney animated version that we’ve all grown to love; the Beast fights some wolves, he and Belle will have a great ballroom dance, and the villages will storm the castle right on cue, and I can't think of any fans of the animated version not liking this take. This is how one tackles a remake; you expand on the characters, keep what really worked in the previous version while ditching things that didn't, and harvest more stuff from the source material. That isn't as easy as it sounds but Bill Condon really pulled it off, and one should remember that the 1991 Disney classic will always be there for Disney purists I’m just glad we have this new, and a slightly more adult version, as a great companion piece.
Note: Bill Condon clearly loved the Jean Cocteau version as he often borrowed visuals from the 1946 film such as disembodied arms holding torches.