Movie review: Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast is a diverse reboot

The story old as time, Beauty and the Beast returns in a live-action format starring Emma Watson. The story old as time, Beauty and the Beast returns in a live-action format starring Emma Watson.

The idea of a live-action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is no better or worse than any of the mouse’s many examples of mining its own vault for new material, yet from the moment it was announced, it was met with over-excitement and unnecessary scorn. The cast, the songs, the very concept were under massive scrutiny from supporters and detractors alike. There’s nothing being done to this story that hasn’t already been tried in Maleficent, Kenneth Branagh’s Sleeping Beauty and, no doubt, many more to come, yet this generated far more commotion, good and bad, than any Disney reboot in recent memory.

Beauty and the Beast
PG, 126 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

Now that it’s out, how does it hold up? Those who dislike the concept will find nothing to change their mind—a remake devoid of new substance other than an unnecessarily elaborate backstory, a cast with completely uneven singing ability and a series of notable decisions that feel more like calculated risks for maximum ticket sales than genuine inspiration. Fans, meanwhile, will probably have a new favorite movie, with likable lead actors, moments of genuine pathos and the first consciously inclusive fairy-tale blockbuster that makes a point of proving that LGBT characters and interracial romance are not box office poison. (If the enthusiastic and nonjudgmental reaction of the kids behind me is any indication, we have reason to be optimistic about the future.)

The film begins with a handsome yet self-centered prince (Dan Stevens) hosting a lavish ball, when an enchantress curses him, his castle and all of its inhabitants to teach him the meaning of inner beauty. (Of course she only does this after turning into a beautiful woman first, a trope Disney has not yet learned to avoid.) Cut to Belle (Emma Watson), a girl not entirely understood by her fellow “provincial” villagers. She lives with her father (Kevin Kline) and is constantly pursued by the egotistical Gaston (Luke Evans). You know the rest.

In the end, Beauty and the Beast is exactly what you think it will be plus exactly what Disney said would be different. Your kids will love it, you will probably forget it.

Director Bill Condon’s respect for his protagonists, as well as the audience, is apparent in the consistency of their characterizations. That she falls in love with the beast is not portrayed as her sacrificing her individuality or free will, and the romance has less of a Stockholm syndrome feel to it than the animated film (though not the sophistication of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, from which both borrowed many visual cues). Watson is a delight, bringing intelligence and depth to Belle even if her vocals and solo numbers don’t stand out. Stevens successfully finds the many levels to the beast as he struggles with the man he once was, though the CG makeup is a distraction rather than an improvement. The supporting cast as enchanted furniture (Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Audra Macdonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Emma Thompson and others) is uneven but mostly endearing. The only technical drawbacks are the staginess and being far too dark (literally, it’s difficult to see).

As for the social content-—Disney’s main selling point after the public rejected the original music—it’s there, it’s refreshing and it’s interestingly forgettable. For those who don’t follow movie news, the character of LeFou (Josh Gad) was announced to be “exclusively gay,” a strange choice of words but an accurate statement nonetheless. He is in love with Gaston, and it is not ambiguous. But it is also not as prominent as Disney made it seem, with occasional fleeting moments that are mostly silly. One groundbreaking aspect they have not advertised is possibly due to spoilers, but the diverse cast and mixed-race romances are accepted as a fact of life, an issue Disney has wrestled with and apparently decided to tackle with full force. It will be interesting to see how they incorporate this into future films.

In the end, Beauty and the Beast is exactly what you think it will be plus exactly what Disney said would be different. Your kids will love it, you will probably forget it. It’s not revolutionary, but trying to improve on-screen representation with dated source material is refreshing and the fact that the movie isn’t horrible is a nice bonus.

Playing this week

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Before I Fall, The Belko Experiment, Get Out, Hidden Figures, Kong: Skull Island, The Lego Batman Movie, Logan, The Shack  

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W.
Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
Get Out, Hidden Figures, I Am Not Your Negro, Kong: Skull Island, Logan, The Sense of An Ending

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