It's hard to believe that it's been more than 25 years since the original Beauty and the Beast. Before Pixar, Walt Disney was the animation giant responsible for box office success stories, Aladdin and The Lion King. While there's been some seesawing over the last three decades, they've reinvented themselves and have started adapting their most successful animated features into live-action films, most recently Cinderella and The Jungle Book.
Their latest adaptation is of the beloved Beauty and the Beast, a timeless tale that many parents will remember having seen as children. The nostalgic hooks will undoubtedly lead many families to the cinema in the hopes of capturing some of that former glory, but does Disney's latest effort match its animated predecessor or live-action contemporaries?
Unfortunately, the short answer is no. It's no secret that Disney is in the film business to drive profits. Their acquisition of Lucasfilm and the Star Wars, Marvel franchises echoes this sentiment with sequels scheduled from now into the forseeable forever. As much as they would want us to believe they are simply making family magic and childhood memories, these romantic gestures are a means to an end.
Getting Bill Condon to direct was a cold reality business decision. While he has an Oscar for his screenwriting and several notable directorial film credits, he directed two of the Twilight films. Vampires, beasts, a virgin... there were obviously some synergies driving this casting call over and above the franchise's staggering box office numbers.
The casting of Emma Watson was equally transparent, bringing her history as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series into focus. An enchanted castle, a headstrong young woman and uneasy romance made the stars align, bringing Watson and her loyal fan base to the tale.
Unfortunately, while deemed bankable... this puzzle piece is in the wrong box. Emma Watson is an accomplished actress and has demonstrated she can command leading roles in Hollywood. However, the role of Belle would have been much better suited to a newcomer or the likes of Emma Roberts or Lily Collins. Watson is determined and her quality shines through, yet she just seems at odds with the character description and temperament, unable to exude the same warmth and joyous spirit as her animated counterpart.
Dan Stevens lends his considerable talents to the role of the Beast, however you can't help but feel that his performance was lost in translation. CGI has come a long way since 1991, which is why the rendition of the Beast is somewhat disappointing. It's realistic, tipping the hat to the animated version and using Stevens' eyes and expressions to personify the character, yet seems stuck in limbo between animation and live-action. Perhaps they shouldn't have used so many daring close-ups, introduced the Beast more gradually or have resorted to prosthetics and make-up like The Elephant Man in 1980 or the namesake TV series in 1990.
The rest of the ensemble seem much more suited to their roles... Luke Evans delivers one of his best performances in recent memory as the arrogant, pompous Gaston. Josh Gad is a delight as his hero worshipping sidekick and "tactician" LeFou. Kevin Kline is good as Maurice, Belle's quirky and tinkering father, while Ewan McGregor, Iain McKellen and Emma Thompson make a first class trio playing Lumière, Cogsworth and Mrs Potts respectively.
The character design and execution of these supporting CGI characters is extraordinary. From reflections in Cogsworth's glass window to the sheen on Mrs Potts and Chip, the technical wizardry is quite staggering. This extends to the lush production design, which while similar to Cinderella extends even further into the majesty of Versailles. Beauty and the Beast is spectacular to the point of being ostentatious and borderline kitsch... from lavish dance numbers to storming the castle, every frame is chock-full with exquisite detail.
The score is just as rich, supersizing the original animated film's sound and song, and harnessing the power of a big budget Broadway musical. From a pure sound and visual perspective, Beauty and the Beast is sensational, delivering a loud, proud and showy musical adaptation that almost justifies its existence on aesthetic and aural appeal alone.
Sadly, the live-action adaptation isn't quite as charming or innocent as the original. The charm and magic is manufactured rather than earned, giving it a colder edge, which is sharpened by the film's sexual awareness. While faithful to the story of the original film, the film-makers have made some smart little alterations to the tale and given the Gaston-LeFou comedy duo more weight as comic villains. Some of the modernisations don't quite work, but the cheeky bromance and comedic undertones are entertaining nevertheless.
All in all, the live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast is a mixed bag. The sound and visuals give it the impetus to coast on the sensory experience alone. Backed by the timeless fairy tale, waves of nostalgia, an amusing screenplay and a fine ensemble, it seems almost good enough against such a decadent backdrop. The miscast co-lead, tonal shift and odd distraction isn't annoying enough to derail the film, but will certainly undermine your overall enjoyment. Just don't expect to shed a tear or feel the need to watch it again.
The bottom line: Decadent