It is a story that everyone knows — the tale as old as time. Yet, somehow, the live-action digital remake of “Beauty and the Beast” still dazzles and leaves the audience longing to be a part of its enchanting world, even after 26 years. It is a difficult task to take a Disney masterpiece and make it unique and fresh, but director Bill Condon (“Dream Girls,” “Gods and Monsters”) does exactly that in his first film with Walt Disney Pictures.
For the most part, the remake stays true to the original plot of the 1991 animated classic, but there are some modern updates that serve to add more depth. The backstories of the characters are further developed, which leads to more dynamic characters. The childhood of the Beast (Dan Stevens) is explained as well as the untimely death of Belle’s (Emma Watson) mother. Additionally, the lives of the staff in the palace, such as Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Lumière (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), are enhanced. The curse on the castle is also expanded in fuller detail, creating a tense environment within this magical world.
The special effects in the film are stunning, as one would expect of a Disney production. Since many of the characters are objects, like Plumette the feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Maestro Cadenza the piano (Stanley Tucci) and Madame Garderobe the wardrobe (Audra McDonald), the artists had to make them look realistic, but still maintain a certain level of charm and humanity. The audience needs to get to know these characters on a personal level to root for their freedom, and the special effects artists succeed in this daunting task. Likewise, Belle’s little town and the castle itself are astonishing visual marvels. During Belle’s musical sequences, she twirls through a field that seems to be endless. The scenery is beautiful and captivates the audience.
Additionally, many of the musical numbers in the film are spectacular. During the classic song, “Be Our Guest,” Lumière leads the kitchenware in a performance that ends in fireworks from a champagne fountain. “Be Our Guest” is not the only song from the 1991 version, composed by Alan Menken, that made it into the remake. Beloved fan favorites like “Something There” and “Beauty and the Beast” are also included in the film. One of the best numbers is “Gaston,” sung by LeFou (an ideally cast Josh Gad), Disney’s first openly gay character. The whole bar comes together in a dance routine to boost the ego of the already vain Gaston (Luke Evans). What is more exciting about the music of the film is that Menken and his writing partner, Tim Rice, wrote three new songs exclusively for the film.
Besides the stellar and noteworthy ensemble cast, the iconic duo at the heart of the film delivers incredible performances. Belle seems to be a role made for Watson, best known for her role as the bookish Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” series. Watson exhibits Belle’s intelligence and imagination effortlessly. Her patience when interacting with her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), is genuine and kind. She also brings out strength and confidence in the character, perhaps more actively than in the 1991 version. Her counterpart, Stevens, best known as Matthew Crawley in “Downton Abbey,” portrays the transition of the Beast from monster to gentle creature masterfully. As a result, the romance that blossoms between the two is believable and does not seem forced.
It would not be “Beauty and the Beast” without the signature yellow ball gown, which is updated to be even more glamorous. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who also designed the costumes for “Anna Karenina” and “Pride & Prejudice,” worked with Watson to create updated costumes that allowed for movement to reflect Belle’s active character. Her unmistakable blue ribbon and dress now include detailed embroidery and even pants. Since life in the castle is extravagant, the wigs, makeup and costumes for palace characters are over-the-top and striking. Although the clothing of the townspeople is a little simpler, there are still intricate details.
Many may think of “Beauty and the Beast” as a story just for children, but the plot itself is more complicated with themes like mob mentality and the dangers of small town life. It is a tale that will delight younger audiences as well as older audiences looking for a story with twists and turns or a nostalgic walk down memory lane. The comedy and the musical numbers along with the serious moments of the film complement each other nicely and transform this fairy tale into a story of tragedy, hope, magic and love. As Disney continues its successful streak of live-action remakes — following 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland,” 2014’s “Maleficent,” 2015’s “Cinderella” and 2016’s “The Jungle Book” — many skeptics have been swayed that these much-beloved films will not be ruined by an update. For the live-action remakes to come, most notably “Mulan” in 2018, “Beauty and the Beast” is more proof that these animated classics can be refreshed without ruining their original appeal, introducing a new generation to the iconic characters and stories of the past.