Saturday, 25 March 2017

"What if she is the one? The one who will break the spell?"

Following Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016), Walt Disney Pictures continue their run of live action adaptions from their animated back catalogue with a slavishly faithful and lavishly mounted rendering of Beauty And The Beast. And it might just be the studio's best adaption yet. A nostalgia rush for viewers over a certain age, and magical enough in its own right to convert newcomers.

Many have floundered trying to adapt the classic 1740 fairy tale upon which Disney based their animation, from the Fran Drescher starring The Beautician And The Beast (1997) to the equally ropey recent French version, which paired Léa Seydoux and Vincent Cassel. Adding to the immense pressure was the passion felt by fans of the adored animated version. Had this gone wrong, the Magic Kingdom may well have been stormed by a pitchfork wielding mob.

Happily, gone wrong it has not. Clinging closely to the template of the 1991 Best Picture nominee original, its story, characters and songs will feel potently familiar to anyone who has seen the Mouse House's first crack at the tale as old as time. While it is a good 40 minutes longer than the animation, any additions are well judged by director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn), and nothing new distracts from the familiar formula.

A slightly revised prologue sees the vain prince (Dan Stevens) transformed into the furry fiend by a wandering enchantress. He is condemned to a lifetime of isolation in his castle – unless he can find true love before the last petal wilts from the rose that is counting down his fate. In a nearby village, meanwhile, Belle (Emma Watson) feels like an outcast for reading books and dreaming bigger than the small-minded locals.

Of those aforementioned additions to the plot, most are minor tweaks centred on Belle, increasing the independence she already had in the cartoon compared to some other Disney heroines.

Devising inventions and hatching escape plans, Belle is also given a little more backstory, which adds to the foundation of her relationship with the Beast. Watson's natural strength and sweetness fit perfectly with the role, and she meets the role's musical demands.

Stevens, who looks alarmingly like the cartoon's prince, gives the Beast a soulful voice in a motion captured performance. If the digital effects aren't always perfect, it is good enough to prevent any major distractions, even in the centrepiece ballroom scene.

Gaston, as played by Luke Evans (Dracula Untold), is once again a scene stealer. With biceps (and arrogance) to spare, Evans is more hissably cruel than the cartoon's doltish hunter Josh Gad (Love & Other Drugs), meanwhile, adds layers to Gaston's sycophantic right hand man Le Fou. The supporting cast are, in general, a riot, mostly composed of the Beast's enchanted household objects – servants having assumed the form of various ornaments or pieces of furniture while their master is under the spell.

Present and correct from the cartoon, there is Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), candelabra Lumière (Ewan McGregor) and tea spurting Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), and this version adds Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games) as a harpsichord. All impressively digitally rendered, they are part of a large supporting cast that almost steals the limelight from Belle and Beast, especially as the rose petal countdown feels more urgent for all involved here.

Even McGregor's "Maybeee she iz zee one" French accent feels less egregious in context – these performances are all panto broad, adding to the film's Broadway atmosphere. Which brings us to the songs...

A huge benefit for this adaptation is that it gets to revisit Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's brilliant songs. Once again, 'Be Our Guest' is a highlight, as Lumière and co tempt Belle to stay for dinner via a Busby Berkeley style song and dance routine, but there is also joy in seeing Belle and Gaston's numbers given new life.

Some new verses are weaved in to extend classic songs, and a couple of completely new tracks sit comfortably alongside the old favourites, though only time will tell if they have the same staying power.

Familiarity can be a double-edged sword, but it plays in Beauty And The Beast's favour. You have seen this film before, but when it is redone with such warmth and craft (Jacqueline Durran's exquisite costumes deserving special mention), it is impossible not to be won over anew. This is finely tuned entertainment that should satisfy all quarters of the audience. There is enough darkness to give it a bit of edge, but plenty of laughs for levity, and also moments sure to elicit tears.

One minor gripe though – it feels like a trick was missed by not releasing it at Christmas. Presumably wanting to avoid clashing with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), the film's snow shrouded castle, musical numbers and all round family friendly storytelling would have made for an ideal festive treat. Still, it is hard to imagine this lovely fairytale is going to have to beg for guests at any time of the year.

A delightful live action recreation of a familiar fable. You may have seen it before, but its spirit and glamour are pretty much irresistible. Simply put, Beauty And The Beast is anything but beastly.

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