One of the most anticipated movies of the year is finally here – BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. The live-action version of the beloved 1991 Disney animated classic of the same name, the first animated feature to ever receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture (as opposed to Best Animated Feature), BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is brought to life under the leadership of director Bill Condon and producers Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman. The result is magnificent breathtaking beauty! Truly a “spectacular spectacular”!
Staying true to the “tale as old as time” published in 1740 by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and in keeping with the 1991 animated film, Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST gets a 21st-century story update by screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, empowering our heroine Belle a bit more and making her somewhat of an inventor who longs for something bigger than her small provincial town of Villeneuve. We still have the Beast aka the Prince who, together with his castle and all the objects therein, are under the curse of an enchantress, destined to remain so unless the curse is broken before the last petal of a magical rose falls. Of course, Gaston and LeFou, the latter who breaks new territory for Disney as being a gay character, are front and center with all of Gaston’s braggadocios arrogance and desire to Belle in full resplendence.
Expanding the story, the introduction of the rose comes into play as the reason Maurice is originally taken prisoner by the Beast as it is tradition between the father and daughter that on Maurice’s annual trips to the city he brings her a rose on his return. Suffering an accident with his horse and cart along the way, Maurice is lost and befuddled but stumbles upon a beautiful white rose garden. On plucking one perfect rose for Belle, the Beast appears, setting the stage for Maurice’s imprisonment and the eventual meeting between Belle and Beast.
Also significant is the opening sequencing which provides a voice-over narrative set to exquisitely detailed imagery and production that tells us more about the Prince and his vanity, thus prompting the curse of the enchantress complete with its collateral damage to the castle, as well as the villagers whose memories are wiped of any recollection of the Prince. The beautiful imagery keenly starts with an extreme close-up of the Prince’s blue eyes with beaux arts make-up being applied with camera then slowly pulling out wider and wider with each step of the process leading to a masque ball and eventual curse while giving us the breathtaking look at the opulence and beauty of the castle and the ballroom in all its golden glory. And this does deviate from the animated film by a number of years as to the age of the Prince as we meet him in his 20’s where vanity and greed have shaped him, as opposed to the 1991 film which alluded to through song lyrics that he was cursed and turned into the beast as a young boy.
But what doesn’t change from the animated film are the acclaimed award-winning musical numbers. Each unforgettable song is incorporated into BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, along with three new songs, and designed as production numbers on a scale as grand as that in the Golden Age of Hollywood at the height of movie musicals.
Following the breathtaking opening backstory which gives us the lay of the land and teases with the minutiae and attention to detail of what is to come in this world, we meet Belle and Villeneuve with “Bonjour!”. For fans of the movie musical, you may find yourself recalling the “Consider Yourself” production number from 1969’s “Oliver!” An expansive production with a cast of hundreds of villagers, you’ll find yourself smiling with pulse racing as you are swept into the magic of the musical. Baby boomers will probably feel that same wide-eyed exhilaration you felt as a 10-year old watching “Oliver!” all those years ago. But hold on to your hats because you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet as “Be Our Guest” is still to behold! Exciting about the production numbers in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is that they are a true meld of the expansiveness of an unlimited set afforded by the movie musical and the heightened energy and dramatic flare of Broadway.
We also meet Belle through music and color – following through on the blue of the Prince’s (now Beast’s) blue eyes with her blue dress. Interesting is that Condon and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler utilize mid to extreme wide-screen lensing for the introduction of Belle and the village, a complete opposite to the extreme close-ups of introduction to the Prince. The metaphor that speaks to Belle’s world already being more expanded than that of the Beast, even when a Prince, adds another layer to not only the story, but to the character of Belle – she sees more than just herself and what’s in front of her. Color is the metaphoric king in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.
Blending the story of the animated film with the French fairy tale and then adding elements and characters gives the film a more robust, full-bodied flavor. Relationships are more established, particularly that between Gaston and LeFou with Josh Gad stealing every scene with his terrific sense of comedic timing with both facial expressiveness and delivery. Similarly, who knew that Luke Evans had such a hilarious self-deprecating streak in him as he plays Gaston with all the camp and flair possible without becoming a caricature.
A lovely and unexpected touch is Kevin Kline as Maurice. The tenderness which Kline brings is charming, touching the heart. By the same token, he plays the fear and terror aspect of the character and story believably. And the chemistry between Kline and Emma Watson is as sweet as a young Hermione’s love and friendship with Hagrid and Dumbledore in “Harry Potter.” The new song by Alan Menken and Tim Rice written for BEAUTY AND THE BEAUTY and sung by Kline has a haunting charm to it.
While the only live-action Beast performance I have genuinely enjoyed up to this point is that from Ron Perlman in the tv series “Beauty and the Beast”, Dan Stevens has made a believer out of me. Thanks to his own skill set in making use of his eyes plus physical nuance, the former of which is kabuki-captured with the MOVA technology, Stevens makes us feel. We feel the Beast’s anger, his confusion, his shame and his growing love. And we believe it. Particularly adorable is when the Beast is falling for Belle and has some moments of connection he finds embarrassing. Stevens’ lowering of the chin, turning of the head and lowering of the eyes just enchants with schoolboy charm. And who knew Dan Stevens could sing? Had me tearing up as he sang watching Belle race away to save her father. He has a beautiful voice.
As Belle, Emma Watson is perfection. Empowered, independent, loving and kind. Watson is everything one could have hoped for in casting Belle. Having said that, however, disconnecting is her singing voice. While lovely, given the strength of the character, one would expect and hope for a stronger voice in song. That is the one shortcoming with Watson’s performance.
And while the casting of the household is perfection – as well as the introduction of new characters like Madame and Maestro played by Audra MacDonald and Stanley Tucci, along with old favorites like Mrs. Potts wonderfully voiced by Emma Thompson, and Chip – it is Ewan McGregor as Lumiere who shines the brightest throughout the film, most notably with the “Be Our Guest” musical number. I haven’t loved a musical number this much since McGregor and Nicole Kidman performed some key extravaganzas in “Moulin Rouge!”. Which leads me to say this about “Be Our Guest” . . . . MIND-BOGGLING! EYE-POPPING! KALEIDOSCOPIC! SPECTACULAR SPECTACULAR! Talk about an homage to movie musicals!! Between “La La Land” last year and now BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and particularly this “Be Our Guest” number, Busby Berkeley AND Arthur Freed are singin’ in the clouds and dancing on the stars above. And Maurice Chevalier is probably grinning from ear to ear with McGregor’s nod to him as Lumiere. WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW!
McGregor dazzles. The production design is flawless and pays homage not only to McGregor’s “Moulin Rouge!” performance but also his homage within that film to Gene Kelly ‘s “Singin’ in the Rain” number. And how about Cogsworth (wonderfully voiced by Ian McKellen) donning the headdress of Hindi royalty a la Jim Broadbent’s Harold Zielder in “Moulin Rouge!” with a mini Taj Mahal behind him as Lumiere pops out in all the “Moulin Rouge!” finale splendor? The overhead Busby Berkeley-styled camera work celebrating the geometry of the choreography is spectacular. The choreography of this entire number warrants dance awards consideration. But it’s the detail and intricacy of this number – especially given the fact this is not “live action” but brought to life through CGI – that is both outstanding and astounding.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a true marriage between production design-costume-cinematography. It is this triumvirate that makes BEAUTY AND THE BEAST as splendid as it is. Production Designer Sarah Greenwood is known for her work in films like “Anna Karenina” and “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”, both of which have a balance of darkness, opulence, and joy, so there was never a doubt that she was up to the task here. She did not disappoint. Production design is lush, rich, textured and extraordinary with imagination and detail. The Rococo design interiors are perfect for the opulence of the castle and the gilded world of the Prince. Again, this falls to details in the design – design of the ballroom, the library, the village, Maurice and Belle’s home with all of its tinkerings, and the “living” design of the Beast’s castle which is constantly changing.
In tandem with Greenwood’s design is Tobias Schliessler’s cinematography and particularly the lighting, which along with the castle, constantly changes. The transformation and contrast of summer sunlit blue skies and green fields of Belle’s world with the darkness and glistening shadows of the Beast – not to mention the exquisite exterior snow laced winter wonderland – puts this work at the top of my list thus far for Best Cinematography for Oscar 2018. Again, it’s the details of the design and Katie Spencer’s set decoration which are celebrated by the camera. Notable is that some key shots from the animated film are recreated here which should delight young and old alike.
Then there’s Jacqueline Durran’s costuming. WOW! Color is the metaphoric king with the continual thread of blue tying together Belle and the Beast, as well as the signature yellow dress emblazoned with the Beast’s/Prince’s gold. The thread between the two characters ties them together from beginning to end. The tattered clothes of the Beast also follow through with a darker blue. This new apparent Disney partnership with Swarovski again delivers its own beauty. The Prince’s embroidered and crystalled coat is breathtaking. Belle’s organza ball gown complete with over 2100 crystals is almost ethereal in its lightness. The detail to costuming, not only for period authenticity but little things like embroidery ribbons and bows, decolletage ruffles and petticoats, buttons and shoes are standout and complete the immersion into this world which is a perfect meld of reality and fantasy. Not to be overlooked is Belle’s wedding gown. The floral print on white is perfect. And again, back to Tobias’ lensing and lighting – we casually see the details as she waltzes.
Choreography on the whole – from the opening ball (gorgeous on every level from costume to crane camera-work that sweeps in sync with the music and the gowns) to “Bonjour!” to the Belle & Beast waltz – and even the fight choreography in the local tavern with Gaston, LeFou and company – is wonderfully designed and executed.
Very appreciated is the sound design and particularly the sound mix which doesn’t obfuscate dialogue and allows us to hear enunciation of song lyrics. There is no over-powering of music and sound FX (e.g., winter and wolves howling) so as to detract from the story and visuals. Superb soundscape that provides a wonderful sonic experience.
One visual miss is the wolves in the forest. Having screened the film in 2D, I have to wonder if this is not noticeable in 3d or IMAX, but there’s something in the final visuals of the wolves that doesn’t sit as being “correct” based on my viewing.
Get ready for Oscar gold in 2018 for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, including Best Original Song for “Evermore” written by Menken and Rice, performed in the film by Dan Stevens and during the end credits by Josh Groban. Even the musical arrangements on the classic songs are freshened up and revitalized for the film.
A tale as old as time is as a fresh and new as ever. A storytelling and cinematic masterpiece to be beloved for the ages.
Directed by Bill Condon.
Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos based on novel by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve
Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Ewan McGregor, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald