An absolutely classic live-action version of the Beauty and the Beast story served as the basis for the 1991 animated blockbuster—it’s the 1946 Jean Cocteau film, which too many fans of the Disney film still do not know about. The new live-action version pays tribute to this source, complete with partially French closing credits, and while it’s a film of a stage musical of a cartoon of another film based on a fairy tale, it’s also a reminder that the most romantic depiction of Stockholm Syndrome ever told keeps getting revived for a reason.
You know the basics: cursed prince (Dan Stevens from TV’s Downton Abbey and Legion plus motion capture); brainy maiden (Emma Watson, decked out in primary colors and ably demonstrating she can carry a tune); talking furniture (Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Ewan McGregor having a great time hamming it up as cinema’s most famous candelabra); and boorish suitor (a properly snotty Luke Evans from the Fast and the Furious and Hobbit franchises). Plus Kevin Kline in a more fleshed-out-than-usual role as Belle’s father, Maurice, and Josh Gad as Gaston’s sidekick, LeFou, a role that’s gotten more controversy than it deserves for a single throwaway gay joke.
Director Bill Condon, who earned his film-musical cred for helming Chicago and Dreamgirls, doesn’t disgrace the material, though sometimes scenes are edited in a way that disrupts the building energy of a musical number, and the special effects are a mixed bag. The Beast’s face often seems less expressive than in the animated version, and the servants are mostly charming, though there’s a talking wardrobe that might induce a few nightmares, even with Audra McDonald’s angelic voice coming out of it.
Overall, the new version does little to improve upon the animated film. The new songs by Alan Menken and Tim Rice (none of which carry over from the stage version) aren’t the duo’s most memorable, and some awkward efforts designed to build upon Belle and Maurice’s backstory don’t pay off. And the narrative sometimes gets itself into a twist in trying to keep Belle strong while also a prisoner, or explaining why the nice servants got cursed alongside their nasty master.
Still, it’s likely that the bulk of the audience for this film has already seen this story, the Disney version of it in particular, in one incarnation or another. Viewed as a form of fan service, it’s an effective piece, with the iconic numbers and moments proving to be crowd pleasers once again, and yes, a few tears jerked by the finale. It’s not the first Beauty and the Beast, or even the best, but it’s good entertainment for those who can’t get enough of Belle and her hairy beau. Just see the cartoon or the stage musical first if you haven’t—maybe even the Jean Cocteau version? It’s worth tracing back the roots of this story, before someone finds a way to remake it yet again.