At long last, Disney has produced a live action version of the classic 1991 animated film “Beauty and the Beast.” Thankfully this “tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme” has been faithfully preserved and remains familiar, but Disney has added three more heartwarming, beautiful songs by composer Alan Menken, and the live action characters bring their own unique contributions to this classic story.
The story is timeless: an entitled, arrogant, rich Prince gets punished with a magical spell, meets the girl of his dreams but they encounter serious challenges to their relationship. Then, in an emotional, fairy tale ending, true love inevitably prevails. That much is a given. How we get there is the point of this new film.
There is a cognitive difference between live action and animated films. Animation leaves much to the imagination, encouraging a suspension of reality that is different from that in a live action film. However, this new film is not entirely live action either. Key characters are rendered with state-of-the-art computer graphics, imparting a unique charm to them.
There is the motherly Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson); Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) – valet to the Prince, who helpfully shines his light on the goings-on; the ever-serving, unquestionably faithful and supportive head butler Cogsworth (Oscar-nominated and Tony Award and Golden Globe winning actor Ian McKellen, making his musical theater debut at the age of 76!); Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – the ever busy, lighter than air feather duster; Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) – a harpsichord, who is a new character, along with his wife (Audra McDonald) – an Italian opera diva named Madame de Garderobe; and others.
Belle is a live action character, endearingly portrayed by the British actress Emma Watson (who played Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” films). Smart, sensitive, independent, charming and beautiful, she aspires to more than just finding a man, getting married and staying put in her own familiar world. Everyone – from the Beast to Gaston to we, the audience – is attracted to her.
Co-starring in the title role as the Beast, Dan Stevens portrays the rich, arrogant, unsympathetic Prince who is taught an important life lesson by a disguised enchantress (Hattie Morahan). Live action and exceptional makeup impart a harsh, cruel, gritty appearance to the Beast that was not present in the animated version. Through Stevens’ well-crafted acting performance, we witness a subtle, progressive evolution in his character.
In the animated version, Gaston was and remained a pompous, yet somehow loveable, buffoon-like character. The live action Gaston (Welsh actor Luke Evans) started out that way too – quite likable actually – but in dramatic contrast he turned dark and sinister when he led the charge with the townsfolk to kill the beast! The live action was brutal, making the danger of this situation seem much more serious, life-threatening and real than in the animated version, where it was less likely to take this turn of events quite so seriously. This could upset little children.
Much has been made in the media about the controversial portrayal of the role of LeFou (Josh Gad), Gaston’s aid and constant companion. The contention is that LeFou is openly gay, with critics suggesting that somehow detracts from and negatively impacts his role in the story. One theater has refused to screen the film because of his portrayal. Rather than in the animated version, where his character was a comic punching bag, LeFou is a likeable, more believable, more human being who helps to expose and reveal Gaston’s character flaws.
As for the quaint, exquisite village set in the mid-18th century French countryside, this could (should?) be a no-brainer addition to a Disney theme park, just like Hogsmeade is in “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Universal Studios.
Retail marketing and cross promotions abound. At the Microsoft Store, customers may have their photo taken with a character from the film in an augmented reality experience, use Microsoft computers to animate Lumiere using Moho Pro 12 and Surface Dial, and color a black & white graphic using “Sketchable.”
Is the live action version of “Beauty and the Beast” a worthy successor to the original? Yes, absolutely. It is a truly beautiful, exquisitely crafted film, filled with emotion, suspense, warmth, humor, memorable characters, whimsy and pretty much everything else that was so beloved in the animated version – and more. It will surely become another Disney classic.
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Copyright © 2017 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters & More #480