I know that it might be cinematic sacrilege to criticize the original Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, but it is essential to understand this for the rest of this review:
The original Beauty and the Beast is too short.
I don't means simply in terms of run time. The fundamental problem with the movie is that it leapfrogs the development of the plot and character in ways that are paced too quickly. The story goes from abduction and revulsion to love and affection too quickly. Yes, it is a children's cartoon. And for that reason it gets somewhat of a pass. But you could not make something that flat in a live-action remake.
Thankfully, the new Beauty and the Beast fixes this problem.
The story is the same as the original: A vain and selfish prince (Dan Stevens) is transformed into the Beast and all of his servants are likewise receive a cursed transformation into semi-animate objects. Meanwhile in the local village, the smart and beautiful Belle (Emma Watson), yearns for more than her small-town life and a marriage to the walking pile of machismo Gaston (Luke Evans). When her father (Kevin Kline) is imprisoned by the Beast, Belle takes his place and I'm sure you know the rest. After all, it is a tale as old as time.
I came to this movie a bit skeptical of its necessity. But I am very glad that they made it.
First of all, the movie is gorgeous. The production design is enchanting and the colors are dazzling. As Disney did with its live-action remake of Cinderella, they adopted a color pallet that was vibrant like the cartoons but grounded enough in reality to make it tangible.
The performances are also pitch-perfect. One of Belle's defining characteristics is her intelligence. Watson is able to project a strong sense of dignity and wit throughout the film along with an incredible amount of charm. She is able to carry the movie as the central character because we connect to her immediately. Though Stevens performance is layered under CGI, their chemistry is strong. Here is where giving the movie some breathing room really helps the actors. Stevens is able to take us on a more believable journey from snob to Beast to love interest. Evans stands out as Gaston. He actually infuses the character with a little bit of sympathy through a good portion of the movie. Evans plays him as a man who is doesn't realize who sexist and overbearing he is, which gives him almost a touch of child-like innocence underneath the alpha-male exterior. But when he turns on the menace is it strong and scary.
Josh Gad plays LeFou and brings his strong comedic screen presence to the movie. Kline is wonderful as Belle's father, but Kline is wonderful in everything. His Maurice is a man struggling with that universal problem of wanting their daughters to be strong and independent but also wanting to protect them from the evils and harms of the world. And finally Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, and Ian McKellen turn in some enchanting vocal performances as Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, and Cogsworth respectively.
It also doesn't hurt this movie that the music hasn't aged at all. Musical tastes in a culture are fickle things. Our affections for certain songs wanes, especially if that music sounds too much like a product of its era. Thankfully Beauty and the Beast has a song book that transcends its origins in the early 1990's and feels timeless. It is true that Watson and others may not have the voices of Broadway belters. But their voices are melodious and heart-felt. Music is a strong shortcut to character: when characters sing about what their feeling we know and empathize in an immediate way. And the emotional bonds created here are strong.
Director Bill Condon deserves a lot of credit for filming a movie that has an epic feel to it like a classic fantasy film for adults while at the same time making this a completely accessible and enjoyable film for small children. That is no easy feat, rarely accomplished outside of PIXAR studios. And this is a sweeping romance that deserves to be a classic. If you have an ounce of affection for lavish love stories, then this film, especially the ballroom scene, will sweep you off of your feet. It is a wonderful visual spectacle of the cosmic dance of the masculine and the feminine in perfect opposition and harmony.
From a moral point of view, there are some wonderful insights on the nature of love. GK Chesterton said that the universal truth behind Beauty and the Beast is that "Sometimes you have to love something before it becomes lovable." Or as St. Paul wrote, "While we were still his enemies, Christ died for the ungodly." (Romans 5:8)
For a good portion of the movie I kept wondering, "What is the difference between the Beast and Gaston." In fact, Gaston seemed slightly more likable. I kept thinking that maybe if Belle showed Gaston affection, then he might change from his bestial nature. At first I thought this was a flaw in the story, but then I saw how the narrative turned. But the characters are defined by choices. When faced with the prospect of losing Belle, the Beast turns to heroism. For Gaston, he turns to murder. The reason why the Beast can be redeemed is that he is redeemable. He is open to making the choices needed to change. Gaston is not. His heart is too hard to place anyone above himself.
There are some wonderful lines that this film adds. When asked if Belle could be happy here with the Beast, she says, even though her heart is falling for him, "Can anyone be happy if they aren't free?" This touches on one of the most profound Christian truths: love has to be free. God gives us a free will which allows us to sin. But in order for love to be real it has to be free. The Beast has to give Belle her freedom even if it means losing her in the same way that God gave us all free will even if it means we reject Him.
Shrek deconstructed the ending to the tale by saying that it was too shallow. However, Shrek misses the point: love transforms us. When we are loved we are not the same. Real love should change us into better people. And in the end, love will transform the whole world at the resurrection.
Now some concern has arisen about the "gay scenes" in the film. Particularly, the focus has been on LeFou's obsession with Gaston. If you look for it, it is there. But it not uncommon for lesser men to worship at the feet of their perceived superiors in hopes of getting some spilloff from that glory. In that sense, it wasn't explicit.
The two other instances are these:
Three men are magically dressed up in women's clothes. Two run away screaming and the third simply shrugs. The other is at the very end when LeFou ends up dancing with another man for about 2 seconds.
There is little doubt that these points are intentionally there and that Disney is appealing to the LBGTQ community. However, my judgment is that it is not to the level where it would be a concern to show children. I am very sensitve to parents wanting to protect the innocence of their kids, but the content here is at about the level of Bugs Bunny dressing up as a man to "seduce" Elmer Fudd. Those early Looney Tunes didn't propogandize kids back in the day I really don't believe this movie will either. But parents should be aware of the content and make their own judgments as best they see fit.
When the movie ended I left the theater feeling elated. So many movies fail to make you feel things and worse still their impact fades like reverse polaroid pictures. But Beauty and the Beast as stayed with me because Disney has given us a new classic.
And a classic never gets old.
4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.