‘Beauty and the Beast’ Recaptures the Animated Classic’s Magic

The 2017 live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast is a movie that tries to both live up to the solid original and provide fans with a reason to watch this one without being angry that their childhood has been ruined. If you’ve seen the animated version, you already know the basic story. It’s still the same tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme. But now we have just a little bit more. More singing, more character backstories, and more drama. Refreshing a classic without ruining the original is a big challenge, and for the most part, Disney succeeds here.

Belle is an educated heroine of non-royal lineage who is competent at self-rescue and capable of communicating plainly when she’s being mistreated. The prisoner-falls-in-love-with-angry-jailkeeper storyline is going to be a little awkward, but they handle the transition better than other recent movies with similar storylines (cough 50 Shades cough).

Our story opens, as in the 1991 version, by explaining how the prince came to be cursed. But in 2017, they show us more than they tell us, and it leads to our first magical moment – both figuratively and literally. The narrator explains that the prince prizes beauty and has invited “the most beautiful people” into his castle. We pan out and see that the most beautiful people in the land consist of a more diverse crowd than the all-white animations of the original.

There’s also an effort to make the cast a little more diverse in terms of sexual orientation with a lot of fanfare about “the first openly gay Disney character,” but the effort is not nearly as bold as some of the objectors made it out to be. Matt has more thoughts on this. I have a little more to add later. First, let’s discuss some of the plot holes that were patched in this release.

In case you were wondering how large castles and all their servants could go missing without any search party, we’re told that the enchantment that turns the prince into the Beast also wipes everyone’s memory of the castle and its inhabitants. Later, we’re also given a reason why everyone in the entire castle would be afflicted with a curse to punish one petulant prince. We know how Belle managed to get an unconscious and heavy Beast onto a horse by herself (she didn’t). We also learn what happened to Belle’s mother and why her eccentric father would choose this provincial life for his daughter when surely his talents are more marketable in Paris.

In the original animated adaptation, the enchanted rose blooms until the Beast’s 21st birthday, meaning he was cursed when he was 11. (In the lyrics to “Be Our Guest,” they establish that the castle has been cursed for ten years.) We’re no longer given a time limit on how long the rose will bloom, although ten years seems pretty reasonable. It doesn’t quite explain why Chip is still so young (was he an infant when they were cursed?)

2017’s update includes a supporting cast of professional singers like Audra McDonald and Josh Gad, who give outstanding performances. The leading roles are filled by actors making their singing debuts (Dan Stevens and Emma Watson). The soundtrack is mostly strong, although there are some moments where you can hear the auto-tune treatment in Watson’s voice. There are new pieces added from the Broadway production, although none are as memorable as favorites from the original. Don’t worry, fans: the originals are still there – sometimes with an extra verse or two.

The all-star cast gives us amazing performances, and for the most part, the special effects support rather than detract from the experience. There are occasions when the Beast’s closeups go into the uncanny valley and a few action sequences where the computer intervention is too obvious, but the dance numbers are sublime.

Speaking of sublime, Josh Gad (Olaf in Frozen) should be cast in every possible Disney movie ever made. His performance transformed the annoying cartoon sidekick LeFou into a lovable and somewhat sympathetic sidekick who grows to question his devotion to Gaston. LeFou also has what the director intended to be the first “openly gay” Disney moment, but it was far more subtle than the fanfare suggested. Someday we may see an unambiguously gay character from Disney – one who isn’t a villain or villain’s sidekick and who doesn’t spend time pining after a straight character.

Cinderella, Pete’s Dragon, and the Jungle Book have all had recent remakes to varying degrees of success. Mulan, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid remakes are in the works. It’s not an easy challenge to make a live-action adaptation that works well in comparison to the original – and perhaps it’s a challenge Disney should stop giving itself so often. That said, Beauty and the Beast is the best Disney live-action adaptation to date. It will be in theaters on March 17.