Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Emma Watson, Kevin Kline, Ian McKellen, Dan Stevens, Josh Gad, Luke Evans
Watch Beauty and the Beast online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
What’s the point? That’s the question facing each one of Disney’s live action adaptations of their own animated classics. The Jungle Book delivered the answer with a bellowing roar: its blend of CGI and humans gave the story of Mowgli in the wild a visceral new sense of peril. Cinderella admirably, albeit not always successfully, attempted to tackle the outdated gender roles of the original story. Beauty and the Beast, though, remains the same as it always was: a tale as old as time, of unexpected romance and magical inner beauty. More than most, then, this particular live action remake feels particularly superfluous.
That’s not to say it’s bad, necessarily, just surplus to requirements. The cast certainly acquit themselves well. If anyone doubted Emma Watson’s suitability for the role of Belle, she proves them wrong from the very first frame, as she sings her opening eponymous song. She’s timid but confident, quiet but smart, and instantly sells her relationship with her father, Maurice (a twinkling Kevin Kline). Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen, too, are unabashedly having a whale of a time as Lumiere and Cogsworth, two of the enchanted objects in the titular’s Beast’s remote castle (although it’s hard to tell whether McGregor’s faux-French accent is so overdone it’s fun, or merely overdone). And Josh Gad as LeFou, enamoured sidekick to the village’s resident studmuffin, Gaston (Luke Evans), is infectiously larger than life. (Playing up his affections for his sire is a welcome move in 2017 that, if anything, could have been taken further.)
Their vocal performances are all as charming as you could wish, partly thanks to the genuinely timeless music from Alan Menken. (Emma Thompson, however, fails to follow in Angela Lansbury’s footsteps, with a poorly chosen cockney accent only serving to bring the original film to mind.) The composer also adds some new tracks to the mix, including the sweet How Does a Moment Last Forever, which brings some backstory to Belle, and the moving Evermore, an ode to unrequited love delivered with booming anguish by Dan Stevens’ Beast.
Despite his excellent performance, though, it’s undermined by the ropey CGI used to create the Beast’s motion-captured face. Those uneven effects are the film’s biggest weak spot, and it’s unfortunate that they just happen to be at the heart of one of its central characters. It’s testament to Watson and Stevens that their chemistry still sparks – a chemistry reinforced by the colourful set design and lavish scale that’s captured with confidence by Bill Condon’s camera. Beast’s sentient household items may not always ring true (Be Our Guest is perhaps too glossy to fit the live action setting), but you do buy into the notion that Belle, going to rescue her father from the Beast, should fall for him – just as you buy into the fear that the Beast faces from the villagers hostile to outsiders.
It says a lot, though, that the biggest star to emerge from the whole affair is actually Luke Evans. After his stellar turn in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, he’s picture perfect as Gaston, a hulking, smiling, Byronic specimen of a male man – and he sings, struts and swings a sword (at the head of the angry village mob) with all the arrogance of a cartoonish villain. Whenever he’s on screen, this remake really lights up, conjuring disdain from Watson’s Belle and devotion from Gad’s amusing LeFou.
The result is a likeable, but uneven affair that, unlike The Jungle Book, struggles to set itself apart from its source material. What’s the point, when the story has already been told better before? While Beauty and the Beast may not justify the need for its own existence, though, it repeatedly reminds us of the need for Luke Evans on our screens. Frankly, that’s an achievement still worth singing about.
Beauty and the Beast is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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