Review – A Tale as Old as 2017 (“Beauty & the Beast”)

Disney hit major pay dirt back in 1991 with Beauty & the Beast, their animated feature film and then again in 1994 with their Broadway musical, so why up the ante and change the formula with a fiercely independent Belle, a gay LeFou, and CGI Beast instead of a living actor? Can you say 2017 and diversity!?

Emma Watson is Belle (with a sly Harry Potter reference thrown into the opening song dialogue for fun) living in that ‘small provincial town’ that she wishes she’d leave. And why not? The townspeople there are thick-headed, mean, devoid of happiness, and hate progress like teaching girls to read and Belle’s attempt to invent a crude sort of washing machine. Maybe it’s a lingering after-effect of the Enchantress who placed the spell on the Princes’ magnificent castle hidden in the forest years ago. The Prince (Dan Stevens) was super-vain and threw outrageous parties until he turned an ugly beggar woman away, not knowing it was the Enchantress and, well, you know the rest.

Belle’s only suitor in town is the puffed-up and ultra-narcissistic Gaston (Luke Evans) who pines for her, even though his BFF, LaFou (Josh Gad) would rather have Gaston for himself. But Belle has problems when Maurice (Kevin Kline), her loving and artistic father, is captured by the Beast for taking a rose from his garden. Geez, what a meanie! Belle offers herself as a trade to the horned creature and stays imprisoned, not in a dungeon, but in a lavish suite thanks to the clever and wise-cracking living candlestick Lumiere (voiced by Ewan McGregor) and his stuffy, irascible mantle clock friend, Cogsworth (voiced by Ian McKellen).

Belle tries to escape, but there’s that darn “Be Our Guest” extravaganza that, y’know, makes her think twice about leaving. Dancing dishes and silverware? C’mon, are you kidding me?! Anyway, she ventures into the forbidden west wing, gets yelled at by the Beast, runs away, gets rescued from blood-thirsty wolves, and helps heal the wounded Beast. He shows her a room chock full of books (“It’s yours!”), she opens his mind up to poetry, and little by little they become more than friends. But dang it, that Gaston has to be a dick about things and goes all Suicide Squad on Maurice to get to Belle.

Once Belle tells the Beast that she misses her papa and he let’s her go, the third act cranks into high gear with Gaston turning the entire town into an angry mob to “Kill The Beast” after Belle returns. The castle battle ensues with all the enchanted objects attacking the humans and the Beast going mano-a-claw against Gaston. The ending, like the animated classic, has the requisite Beast turning back into the Prince and every object being changed back to their former human self.

First off, don’t go into this movie expecting the same ‘ol storyline as either the animated picture or the stage musical, because you’ll be somewhat disappointed. Yes, there ARE elements of both here, but on the whole, it’s a completely new world. Thanks to the screenplay by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks Of Being A Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winters War) you have a more ‘adult’ version that includes the Princes’ and Belle’s back-stories, LaFou’s attempts to woo Gaston (he’s not goofy or bumbling here!), a third Enchantress ‘curse’, and a deeper psychological insight into the townspeople and effect on Belle. Yeah, not quite a kiddies picture, although there is the snappy repertoire dialoge from all the household staff (Madame deGarderobe–the wardrobe–and her husband, Maestro Cadenza–the harpsichord–are fun to watch).

Your favorite songs are almost all here, with a few missing (“Human Again”, “Home”, “Me”) and few added in (“Evermore”, “How Does a Moment Last Forever”), and yes, Watson CAN sing, but let’s face it, she’s no Paige O’Hara or Susan Egan. Her acting is wonderful, but her vocal range simply isn’t there, along with Emma Thompson’s (Mrs. Potts) signature song, “Beauty and the Beast”, which is nice, but she ain’t no Angela Lansbury. Then you have that CGI Beast. Honestly, with all the advances in CG (did you SEE The Jungle Book and the new Planet of the Apes movies? Wow!!), they really should have gone with actor Dan Stevens in a full-body suit and latex prosthetics to achieve a more believable looking Beast.

Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters) does have the movie zip along at an even clip with the scenes in the castle beautifully shot. His dynamic of shooting Watson with a CG Beast together is quite absorbing, given that only one of them is real. Points to Watson for acting against a who-knows-what. And Condon knows how to shoot some great musical numbers with all the singing ‘n’ dancing; the “Gaston” number is terrific. Oh, and check out the production values; they are exquisite and breath-taking to behold, especially the opening ballroom shot. It’s jaw-dropping. 

Beauty & the Beast (1991)

Walt Disney, on his grand European tour in 1935, gobbled up a host of classic books, including Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie Leprince deBeaumont. He actually attempted to make this animated feature in the 30’s and again the the 50’s, but things got sidetracked by other movie projects. Imagine how this would have been if it were done in the 1950’s?!

THE only animated feature EVER to win an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, the timeless tale of a motherless girl (aren’t they all?) named Belle (voiced/sung impeccably by Paige O’Hara) with goofy, inventor father Maurice (Rex Everhart) that possibly has a princess background, if you believe all the conspiracy theories on YouTube. She’s also independent, loves books, and is stalked by the most psychotic sociopath this side of France. His name is Gaston (Richard White–perfect), a bulky, blowhard of a jerk who has a diminutive moron of a BFF named LeFou (Jesse Corti), who follows him around like a lost, eager little puppy.

But after Maurice is captured by a cursed-prince-turned-Beast (Robby Benson), Belle must offer herself up as a sacrifice to take his place as this monster’s permanent companion. But it turns out things ain’t that bad: all the servants (turned into household objects) are pretty nice to her. There’s the flamboyant, talkative, and very French candlestick Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), the persnickety and nervous clock, Cogsworth (David Ogden Steirs), and the lovable, kindly teapot Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury), with her tiny chipped teacup son, Chip (Bradley Pierce).

But despite the (WOW!!) showstopping dinner show, Belle doesn’t know about the Beast’s deep, dark secret: the cursed rose he has is withering away and soon he’ll stay a creature, unless someone loves him. . .for who he is! The Beast tries his best to woo Belle, but fails miserably until he saves her life. But just as the two are making nice-nice, Gaston hears about the Beast from “that crackpot” Maurice.

The Beast, now truly in love, gives Belle her freedom, but that just brings Gaston and an angry village mob to his castle door in a violent conclusion that nearly costs the Beast his life. Belle finally says those magic words and POOF! The spell is broken in a mesmerizing finale that had audiences cheering as they still do in the ongoing stage musical of the same name.

The late super-screenwriter Linda Woolverton (she also turned her screenplay into the incredibly successful Broadway musical) adapted the French book into one of THE most popular Disney animated films of all times, right up there with The Lion King and Aladdin, which she also had a hand in developing. Music by magician Alan Menken and direction by the dream team of Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and you simply could NOT go wrong. The songs delightfully stuck in your head, the story was funny and full of heart and feeling, and fresh off the monumental success of The Little Mermaid.

AND, for an added bonus, if you get the ‘special extra’ DVD or blu-ray, you get not one, but three versions of this movie! The first is the 70% done, unfinished, “pencil-test” version that was shown to the New York Film Festival. Some scenes didn’t even make the final cut! You also get the regular theatrical version and the ‘special edition’ version, that contains the added song, “Human Again”.

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