Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the 1991 animated film, is a masterpiece in family filmmaking that still holds up over a quarter century after its release. This year’s live action remake is, strictly speaking, a movie that didn’t need to exist. But it makes a resounding case for itself with every charming second, managing to not just stand with the help of the original, propped up by nostalgia and the power of Disney, but to stand (relatively) on its own.
Directed by Bill Condon, the updated take on Beauty and the Beast largely follows the same path as the original. Belle (Emma Watson) is unhappy living in a village in the south of France where she fends off repeated and unwanted advances from the pompous Gaston (Luke Evans). Her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) is taken prisoner by a Beast (Dan Stevens) in a mysterious castle filled with enchanted objects, leading to Belle taking his place. Hijinks and love ensue. Tale as old as time and whatnot…
The film, written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, honors its animated source material while never feeling trapped by it. It expands upon the original’s story, allowing the new film to be at once familiar and fresh. The hallmark, iconic moments are present: Gaston’s buffoonery, repeated wolf attacks, the Beast’s decision to save Belle, Belle’s decision to care for the Beast, and of course Belle’s unforgettable yellow gown. But it’s not all pieces lifted from the 1991 animated film.
Clocking in at 128 minutes, Beauty and the Beast has plenty of time to explore Belle’s relationship with Maurice and the mother she never knew, including a mid-film trip to the Paris apartment they shared. The trip provides Belle with the few answers her father wouldn’t give her, and it gives the audience another reason to care about Belle (not that it was necessary).
The backstory doesn’t stop with Belle, though, as the film also dives into what led a young prince to become the cold-hearted monster who would be the Beast. This was more of an information dump than anything else, but it’s still nice to have a bit more information present. Both backstories provide much-needed depth to the film’s leads and ensure that their relationship is a little less Stockholm Syndrome and a little more true love.
Speaking of the leads: Emma Watson does a spectacular job in her biggest role to date, which seems strange to say about someone who starred in eight films in one of the biggest franchises in history. Her Belle is innocent and full of wonder, strong-willed and independent. She takes action for herself and for the ones she loves, always in control and never relying on anyone else to get her out of sticky situations. Not to mention that her singing is delightful, proving once and for all that some people are just better than the rest of us.
Dan Stevens does great work as the Beast, weaving nicely from his initial hot-tempered anger to his eventual jovial disposition and everywhere in between. Luke Evans is perfectly hateable as Gaston, never allowing audiences a sliver of sympathy for a guy who is really just the worst (but also, in his own way, kind of the best). Josh Gad’s Lefou, a Gaston sidekick who worked up way too much controversy just for being Disney’s first (officially) gay character, is consistently funny without veering into hammy territory. Between Olaf and Lefou, it’s safe to say Josh Gad is the quintessential comedic family movie sidekick, Disney or otherwise.
As expected, the interplay and banter between Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellen) is another highlight. I wouldn’t have minded a bit more back and forth between them, but the film’s not hurting for not having it. The rest of the supporting cast, which includes Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Emma Thompson, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, doesn’t have as much to work with. Their performances aren’t lacking, but there’s unfortunately nothing to set them apart from their animated predecessors.
Beauty and the Beast is effortlessly diverse, even pushing beyond Lefou’s sexuality. Once the spell is broken and the objects resume their human forms (you didn’t really expect a spoiler alert there, did you?), it’s revealed that there are two interracial couples—and it’s not a big deal. It’s not mentioned or called out, much like Lefou’s feelings for Gaston are present but not remarked upon. Each of these things simply is. People are people. Love is love.
The classic songs and sequences are here, and epic moments like “Be Our Guest” work just as well in live action as they did in animation. The film features three new songs: “Days in the Sun,” “How Does a Moment Last Forever,” and “Evermore,” all written by original composer Alan Menken.They’re all perfectly in line with expectations for what a modern Beauty and the Beast song should be, but it’s hard to stand out in a musical with some of the most memorable songs in Disney’s canon.
Going into Beauty and the Beast, I had worried that it might stay unflinchingly loyal to its source material and stop there. That it would fail to make a solid case for its own existence. I’m happy to say that those worries were laid to rest within minutes of the film’s opening sequence. This is a live action remake that stays undeniably true to its source material and the nostalgic place it rightfully holds—but it also makes a few moves all its own.
Beauty and the Beast may have a lot of shared DNA with an animated classic, but it’s not completely beholden to it. While it doesn’t transcend the film that came before it (and honestly doesn’t try to), it expands upon its basis in delightful fashion. You’ve seen a lot of this before, but you haven’t seen it quite like this.