A cinematic cynosure!
Directed by: Bill Condon
Written by: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline
Swift shot: I’ve never seen the animated Disney classic, but of course I am intimately familiar with the story, based on the 18th century French fairy tale “La Belle et la Bête,” by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. This new live-action feature was too enticing to forego, and even though it is a romantic musical, it really did a number on me. I was singing “tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme” all night. Really, what’s not to love about this story? There’s a monster, a villain (who isn’t a monster), a beautiful girl, wolves, comedy, dancing, talking appliances, and Kevin Kline. Of course I loved every minute of it!
Before the story starts we hear a tale of a vain prince who was notorious for cruelly taxing the villagers and acquiring their finest things. He would hold lavish parties with song and dance, and his staff would cater to his every whim without question. One night his party is interrupted by a stranded old woman who only has a rose to offer as payment to stay at his castle. He refuses her offer and learns she was actually an enchantress who places a curse on the prince and transforms him into a large beast. She also transforms his staff into random household appliances. She is teaching him a lesson in humility and hospitality. His fate seems bleak as he must find someone who will fall in love with him to break her curse. Convinced he’s doomed due to his appearance, he has given up hope.
Years pass and we meet Belle (Watson) a young adventure seeking woman who is trapped in a provincial village seemingly light years from her native Paris. She lives with her father Maurice (Kline), a very talented artist who makes extravagant music boxes which tell a story that only he remembers. Belle is the most beautiful girl in her village, but she isn’t looking for any suitors. All she really wants is something spectacular, she can’t stay stifled as her imagination and ingenuity are trapped in a seemingly simple existence. The villagers all think she is odd, or funny, and her biggest sin is . . . wait for it . . . reading books! A girl who reads? The horror! In short, she threatens the status quo, and she actually dreads it at the same time. It’s an interesting kind of peril that is unique to a woman.
Enter the dashing hero, Gaston (Evans) who is more in love with himself than any other living creature on earth. I mean, this character gives Lucifer a run for his money on the ego. What good is a hero if he can’t woo a fair damsel in distress? Gaston sees Belle as a challenge, and he’s quite literally shocked that she isn’t interested in his advances. And that is exactly how Evans plays him, incredulous to her obstinateness.
Of course every villain needs a toady, enter Josh Gad who plays LeFou the buffoon. It’s not much of a stretch to see that LeFou’s interests in Gaston go further than admiration. Of course, Gaston appreciates a good lackey who hangs on his every word and gesture. And to LeFou’s credit, he does try to make Gaston a better person, however feebly.
One day Maurice heads out to town to sell his music boxes, and on the way to town he gets lost in the woods and is hunted by incredibly well rendered CGI wolves that will probably frighten most small children. The kids in front of me were certainly alarmed by them, especially when they bore their teeth and lunged after Maurice. As he flees for his life he comes across an old castle whose grounds the wolves are too afraid to traverse. He seeks shelter for the night, but while there is a fire in the fireplace and food laid out, there is nobody around. Naturally, he makes himself right at home, all the while looking for the master of the place. All he finds is a talking cup, and it’s then that he decides to take his leave.
But, before he goes he comes across white roses and decides to pick one for Belle. The castle’s inhabitant is none other than the Beast who is enraged by this barbaric act of picking a rose from his grounds and locks Maurice up in one of his towers. Belle finds out about what happens and offers herself to take her father’s place, and the Beast accepts. She’s to do her father’s time forever. Apparently the Beast really likes those roses! Belle makes every effort to escape, but the magically cursed staff members try desperately to get her to stay in the hopes she’ll break the curse.
That’s all the story you need to know. What makes this film a real masterpiece is everything! All the pieces fit together in a perfect medley of song and dance and romance and intrigue and combat. The costumes are intricate and interwoven into the fabric of the film, the magical characters that are also sharing the curse with the Beast are just as important as the Beast and Belle. I was worried about that when I first thought about seeing this film, and it’s one of the reasons I steered away from the animated classic . . . the idea of a dancing cup seemed lame to me in 1991. But, now, I understand why everyone fell in love with all the kitchenware. I get it now folks, I was wrong.
And the best part of Beauty and the Beast is arguably the songs that help move the story along, from the opening introduction to Belle to the final scene, I was never bored with any of the musical aspects of the film. I do have a musical background myself, and I tend to be extra critical of songs being flung into a movie just to call it a musical. Or I find myself upset when a musical has a contrived story that is thrown together just to make a song work. I never got that with Director Condon’s work, and that is a testament to the careful balance of story and song and his classic love of the old greats. There are definitely some easily recognizable homages to musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood that I appreciated.
With new elements that help tell more about Belle and the Beast’s connection in a way that wasn’t divulged in the animated film, this new Beauty and the Beast does a tremendous job of bringing a reality to the story that I found quite refreshing. Yes, it’s a romance (and a musical), but there’s swords and fighting and things to keep you entertained. If you are worried about this one not living up to the original, fear not, I asked Madison to let me know if you’d be disappointed. She certainly wasn’t as she will be seeing it again probably a few times, actually. I hope you’ll give it a chance and appreciate it for the wonderfully told story that it is.