It’s finally here. The live Disney musical we’ve all been waiting for. Twenty-six years after the animated original (one of the few animated films with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture), the live adaptation of Beauty and the Beast graces our screens. While it’s not the first live action adaptation of a much loved Disney animated classic – following Maleficent, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book – it is the first to retain its most crucial element: the music. Does that then mean it’s simply an unnecessary rehash? It’s depends on your level of pessimism, your fondness for nostalgia, and possibly how much you value animation.
From the very first scene I was reminded of what a truly lavish movie musical looks like. Director Bill Condon, who brought us Dreamgirls and penned the screenplay for Chicago, was reportedly first asked to helm an adaptation more akin to Snow White and the Huntsman with limited music. He fought this and won, and on behalf of all the musical nerds the world over I would personally like to thank him. Of course this means that 2017’s Beauty and the Beast does run the risk of rehashing old ground. But while animation is certainly a genre to prize in its own right (don’t be one of those fools who considers it a lowlier form of cinema), there is something to be said for capturing living, breathing performers on film in the movie musical genre.
Following on the back of Les Misérables and Into the Woods, Beauty and the Beast is another full scale extravaganza. And unlike those films, it still retains that Disney charm which may make it more palatable for those who can’t handle the more depressing or sung-through musicals. The musical numbers are spectacular, none more so than ‘Be Our Guest’ which makes use of current animation techniques and is like something straight out of a Vegas extravaganza but with crockery. The opening number ‘Belle’ felt like it should have been followed by applause and demonstrated right off the bat that Emma Watson most certainly CAN SING so back off, haters! ‘Gaston’ provides good old-fashioned comic relief, and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ may just bring a nostalgic tear to your eye. Ariana Grande and John Legend’s cover that plays over the closing credits is also terrific.
With a screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, the story is much the same as the original, with a few minor changes. The slight problem with the whole Stockholm Syndrome issue is somewhat improved, but it is never quite clear whether Belle (Watson) is being held against her will or not past her first day in the castle. Belle does seems more empowered in this adaptation; she stands her ground against the Beast (Dan Stevens) from the get-go. It still remains a bit iffy, but according to the ultra-conservative crowd this is nothing compared to the audacity of including *GASP* a gay character. Yes, because gay men and musicals are surely incompatible. The mind boggles.
Much has been said about how this is the first Disney film boasting an “openly gay” character in Gaston’s friend and henchman Le Fou (Josh Gad). But unfortunately this term is a bit of a stretch. There are hints throughout that Le Fou has romantic feelings for Gaston (Luke Evans), followed by a blink and you’ll miss it moment (not a kiss) in the finale. In an earlier scene Gaston asks him why he doesn’t have a girlfriend and Le Fou does not correct him. He’s not exactly out and proud. But it is progress for Disney, even if it is baby steps.
The cast list boasts a swather of A-list names, along with a few other talented gems. Leading the film is Emma Watson, and those who come away with criticisms of her performance are surely those who have given up on ever loving anything or anyone again. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect choice for Belle than Watson, a role model for women everywhere who is known for perhaps the most bookish character of all in Hermione Granger. She’s not a belter but for what is required of her in Alan Menken’s score she is perfectly capable. Singing aside, she imbues Belle with charm and grace, along with a fighting spirit.
Dan Stevens and Luke Evans are similarly utterly impressive in their vocal abilities; with Evans’ background in West End musicals evident. There are a couple of Broadway stars in smaller roles, with the unconquerable Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe (yes, she’s a wardrobe) and the hilarious Josh Gad from Broadway’s The Book of Mormon (and Olaf from Frozen) as Le Fou. Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Emma Thompson make up the rest of the castle clan, and much of the film is spent waiting to see their faces once more. They are all delightful, though Ewan McGregor has admitted he sounds more Mexican than French in his role as Lumière. Kevin Kline is back in action as Belle’s father Maurice and is a pleasure.
This adaptation will no doubt split viewers. For some, it will be too close to the original and they will wonder what the point was in essentially recreating the animation, especially when the Beast and his possé remain animated creations for ninety percent of the film. For others, the sight of those much-loved characters brought to technicolour life (albeit it briefly for some) – along with the opulent sets and costumes – will be pure magic. I’m firmly in the second camp. Keep these musical beasts coming.
Beauty and the Beast is in cinemas from 23rd March through Disney.