Starring Emma Watson, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Dan Stevens, Audra McDonald
Directed by Bill Condon
Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos
Based on Disney’s previous animated film version of “Beauty and Beast”
Based on “Beauty and the Beast” by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Music by Alan Menken
Cinematography by Tobias Schliessler
Edited by Virginia Katz

Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” a new, live-action version of the studio’s previous, hugely-successful 1991 cartoon movie of the same name, is an upbeat, kid-friendly, family-friendly fun, diverting, sweet and overall enjoyable escapist fantasy-romance-musical movie that deftly adheres just enough to the original while still staking out its own identity to remain original and traditional to satisfy longtime fans and to satisfy modern-day fans looking for something new.

The film is bolstered by the original, excellent songs from the great Alan Menken–there’s not a dud in the bunch; a strong, exceptional cast who all know when to keep things light enough so the kids won’t be too scared, but who also know when to throw in a knowing nod and wink for the adul

“Beauty and the Beast” is a worthy live-action companion piece to the original cartoon version, and this is a great movie to see in the wake of this week’s disruptive winter snowstorms and bad weather. The movie’s old-fashioned folk-tale storytelling, fantasy-style landscapes and classic-style musical-theater-and-movie songs will–yes–warm your heart.

Director Bill Condon knows his way around a movie musical, and he knows how to successfully arrange the various required filmic components for this type of hybrid fantasy-romance-musical so one component doesn’t swallow up any of the other components. And that accomplishment contributes to the overall enjoyment and entertainment factors of the movie. There’s fantasy—spells, curses, sorcery, witchcraft, creatures, talking teapots and teacups and candlesticks and clocks and wardrobes; there’s comedy—one-liners, gags, jokes, Mel-Brooks-style inside jokes, asides, comic relief characters; there’s romance—a classic romance between, well, a beauty and a beast—natch—and a classic handsome-suitor-pursuing-beauty attempted-romance; there’s some action, chases, fights and suspense; and there’s, of course, songs—wonderful, lively, upbeat, positive, melodic standard songs that accompany and contribute to the advancement of the story at hand, just like all great musical-theater-and-movie songs should do. And Condon knows just where and when to bring up and down, and in and out, the fantasy, comedy, romance, action and songs at just the right moments, at just the right times. This is smart, experienced filmmaking—carefully balancing and dolloping out in equal parts these various components so the end mixed-stew movie ends up being enjoyable at all of these levels.

This is nothing new, of course, but it’s sometimes worth noting when a big, spectacle-laden film like this actually succeeds in accomplishing this—because, alas, there’s an abundance of big-budget spectacle movies that end up being so overwhelmed, overtaken and overdone by, well, the spectacle—mainly, modern special effects—that any possible other array of filmic elements and components get completely lost in the noise. Occasionally, the spectacle works—2016 was a notable year for fantasy-comedy-romance-adventure films that actually did work amid the spectacle—and of course there’s been a quality slate of similar big-budget successes in recent years—many of the Marvel and Pixar and superhero films; “Guardians of the Galaxy;” Peter Jackson’s “King Kong;” and, of course, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies, to name just a few of the big-budget successes.
But, again, there’s that nasty junkyard stream of disappointing big-budget, modern-day hybrid-genre films that just leave moviegoers depressed and disappointed. “Beauty and the Beast” is indeed a big-budget, hybrid-genre, tent-pole, spectacle of a movie—but it does end up working in the end, as noted, and that is good news, indeed.
Condon—again, like any quality director who knows what he is doing—has cast simply an exceptional, high-quality cast of superb actors who are mostly all veterans of fantasy films–so they know just what they are doing and what they should be doing amid the green screens, backdrops, fantasy sets, elaborate make-up, the special effects, the elaborately fantasyland sets and props, and the decidedly, obviously fantastical and other-worldly script, dialogue, story, characters and story, plot and character developments.

Emma Watson, in the lead role of Belle—the beauty of the title—of course was Hermione in the “Harry Potter” films. Ian McKellen, who plays Cogsworth, the talking clock, is a veteran of Jackson and Walsh’s “Rings” and “Hobbit” films. Emma Thompson, who plays a motherly, loveable Mrs. Potts, the talking teacup, is a veteran of the “Harry Potter” films, a “Men in Black” movie and “Nanny McPhee.” Luke Evans, who plays the arrogant, vain, horrible and completely unlikeable (almost to the point of being a downer aspect of the film—almost) Gaston, played Apollo in the 2010 version of “Clash of the Titans,” and he played Aramis in a generally-unneeded 2011 version of “The Three Musketeers.” Ewan McGregor, who plays the enchanting, wonderfully suave and classy Lumiere, the talking candelabra who almost steals the movie—almost, but not quite—of course played the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the generally unneeded “Star Wars” prequel trilogy that was brutally unleashed on an unsuspecting public from 1999 to 2005. Josh Gad, who plays the generally annoying and somewhat ill-advised somewhat-effeminate LeFou (the portrayal is annoying not because of any political reasons, of course, but because it just doesn’t work in the overall story as envisioned—the intention is honorable, welcome and praiseworthy, but it just doesn’t work here, and the character is generally just distracting) played Olaf in Disney’s “Frozen.” And the great Kevin Kline, who plays Maurice, Belle’s lovable, sympathetic and heroic father, of course, is a veteran of Shakespeare on the stage, “The Pirates of Penzance,” “A Fish Called Wanda,” “The Nutcracker,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Wild Wild West,” among much, much more.

Why note all of this background? Because Condon has assembled, again, a cast of talented performers who are comfortable in fantasy, science-fiction-ish, supernatural and otherwordly stories, settings, dialogue, sets and settings. This is important, but far too often, studios tend to cast actors in these big-budget spectacle fantasy films who do not have this fantasy background—and it shows. How many actually-talented veteran or younger actors have appeared in some wild costume and make-up in some huge fantasy/sci-fi/horror/action/adventure film only to completely lack the required presence and acting chops for such settings—and have ended up appearing embarrassing, out-of-place and even somewhat disappointing? Many, alas. It’s not always the actor’s fault—sometimes, they are simply miscast due to wayward, name-oriented casting decisions from starry-eyed producers and directors. As many actors themselves have admitted through the years: some of them are comfortable in these fantastical settings, and some of them are decidedly uncomfortable, out-of-place and just-plain embarrassed themselves in these types of settings. Every actor has been there—it’s part of the business. Basically, science-fiction, fantasy, supernatural—and musicals—are not for everyone. Every actor has their comfort zone—and their uncomfortable zones. In “Beauty and the Beast,” the actors are in their comfort zones, thankfully, throughout the film.

The impressive ensemble cast playing the traditional fairy-tale/folk-tale/cautionary-tale/fantasy-tale characters in this version of “Beauty and the Beast” all seem so comfortable, so assured, in their respective roles, that enthusiasm and presence jumps off of the screen, adding to the film’s enjoyment! It’s apparent that the actors are having a blast, relishing the chances to play classic characters in a classic children’s book/bedtime story tale—while also enjoying the generous trappings of Disney’s huge-budget expense account, as every costume, every bit of make-up, every bit of set, production and art design, every bit of visual, computer and special effects—everything—is top-of-the-line, high-quality and well-presented on screen. Who wouldn’t be having a blast being in this film?

And that’s exactly what the actors have stated—apparently honestly, it appears—in a string of exhaustive promotional appearances to publicize the film in recent weeks: that this was a fun movie to work on. And that enthusiasm does appear to have infused the actors’ performances, as everyone runs, dances, skips and moves swiftly and happily throughout their scenes, and not just in dance numbers—the movie is edited at a brisk pace, and the actors move quickly along with that pace. That may be a nod to keeping the attention of the expected kids who will come out in droves to see the film—and the quickly-paced editing is almost a disadvantage in the movie—almost, but not quite. So the movie does move fast—almost too-fast, but not quite. And this simple enjoyment of being in a fantasy film is important, for there’s plenty of stories of unrest and palace intrigue and backstage backstabbing on the sets of similar films throughout film history, of course. It would be odd to see any negative, unhappy or backstabbing backstage stories emerge from the set of “Beauty and Beast,” because, again, the actors do seem to be enjoying themselves on screen.

And quite interestingly, many of the actors shine brightly in “Beauty”—-playing those aforementioned inanimate objects!! As noted, many of the actors are playing special-effect objects—a candelabra, a clock, a teapot, a teacup, a wardrobe! And, for the most part, they weren’t even on the set, at least in the traditional sense! Yes, these objects are all played by seasoned, veteran, talented actors, as noted, but they all are to be commended—in this movie and in any similar movie—for getting the actual characters, back stories, emotions, moods and inflections so beautifully rendered and portrayed! McGregor and McKellen just about nearly steal the movie as Lumiere and Cogsworth—a talking candelabra and a talking clock! But—this is Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen. They can play talking objects and just simply make them memorable, touching, fully-characterized characters. Of course, in the story of “Beauty and the Beast,” the objects are actually humans who have been cursed into being objects, but, still, from an acting perspective, in real life on the set, it was really McGregor and McKellen standing in a studio room emoting into microphones! And Stanley Tucci as a talking harpsichord, Audra McDonald as a talking and operatic-singing wardrobe and Emma Thompson as the talking teacup are all just fun and magical, too!

The story—does anyone need to know the story beyond a couple of sentences? No? Okay then. Belle, the beauty, is a beautiful, humble girl in a small, rural town who likes books, kids, her father and a simple life. The Beast is a cursed prince-type who has been cursed into being a Beast until he learns to love again, and be loved again. All of his staff has been cursed into being inanimate objects. They all reside in the Beast’s mansion, hidden in the woods and depressingly cursed and haunted. Gaston—basically an idiot—is full of himself, fools everyone into believing he’s some type of hero and dashing prince-type (which he isn’t, of course) and pursues Belle almost to the point of what today would naturally be known as “stalking” but in fantasyland is old-fashioned, single-mindedness and simple-mindedness machismo (very old-fashioned). Meanwhile, Belle’s father, Maurice (Kline), is taken captive by the Beast when Maurice stumbles into the Beast’s scary, creepy, haunted mansion in the woods. Belle goes to rescue Maurice and is instead taken captive by the Beast. Maurice escapes, tells the seemingly-equally-idiotic villagers about the Beast, and Gaston maneuvers to label Maurice as crazy, getting Maurice out of the way so Gaston can go rescue Belle and force her to marry him. Again, this is accepted in fantasyland, but in modern times, this would be akin to kidnapping, corruption and psychotic behavior. Gaston goes to rescue Belle, faces off with the Beast. Belle defends the Beast against Gaston. Does the Beast escape the curse before he dies? Do the objects turn back into their human form before becoming the objects forever because of the curse? Do Belle and the Beast defeat Gaston and live happily ever after? What do you think? However, this is indeed but a summarization—the story is fleshed out, there are subplots, there is actual character and story development, and all along the way, there are those beautiful, wonderful, melodic songs from Alan Menken, of course!

About those songs—Menken, of course, is brilliant. The title track and “Be Our Guest” are the highlights, but, again, there’s not a dud song in the batch in “Beauty and the Beast.” Even in the most mid-tempo or slow-tempo songs, there is still melody, still feelings, still music of story and mood and atmosphere, and the songs do accompany the story and move the story along appropriately. In terms of production numbers, the presentation of “Be Our Guest” is the designated showstopper—and what a showstopper it is! All presentation, production, melody, chorus, special effects, and just plain razzle-dazzle from start to finish! In terms of musical production numbers, “Be Our Guest” is the musical highlight—and the presentation of the song is one of the highlights of the movie.
Also in terms of production, “Beauty” excels at every level of production, set and art design. Villages, forests, homes, and especially the Beast’s mansion are presented with exceptional artwork—an overall consistent level of beautiful artistry that portrays beauty, darkness, danger, romance and other accompanying moods and atmosphere. Sets, costumes, make-up and special effects are all presented at a high level. And, of course, the special, computer and visual effects are also high-quality—the talking objects, packs of hungry wolves, the Beast himself, and other scenes of magic, sorcery and fantasy. Kudos, as always, to the hundreds of visual effects artists who worked on the film.

The exceptional cast has been noted, but one special bit of casting does need to be noted and praised—the beautiful, lovely and serene Emma Watson. She is just perfectly cast as Belle. At 26, Watson is at a certain young-adult peak of her beauty, skills and presence—she just radiates beauty onscreen. And she smartly doesn’t overdo it, acting-wise, in the role—she scales her presentation back somewhat, letting her basic beauty and premise shine through. In this role, in this movie, that’s enough—she is, after all, the “beauty” of the title! However, she does act well, and she is watchable and radiant throughout the movie. Dan Stevens does well as the Beast, but, well, the Beast for most of the film is pretty one-dimensional and hidden behind visually-aided special effects and make-up. But one-dimensional works well for Stevens as the Beast—since, well, his character is the “beast” of the title!

In the end, this live-action “Beauty and Beast” will send everyone out of the theaters happy, entertained, upbeat and—as corny as it sounds—possibly even humming or singing one of the songs. And in March of 2017, with literal weather storms and figurative political storms whipping up confusion and division and contentiousness and anger—perhaps everyone needs to take a chill pill, head into a movie theater, sit back, and lose themselves amid original writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s classic folk tale and songwriter Alan Menken’s songs and just enjoy the Disneyesque fantasyland that is “Beauty and the Beast.” Sometimes, it’s just fine to give in to a classic Disney movie where there is a happy ending, and everyone—well, mostly everyone—does indeed live happily ever after.

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.