Director: Bill Condon. Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Josh Gad, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Kline. PG cert, 129 mins
Twenty six years ago – yes, yikes – Beauty and the Beast rolled out the red carpet for a second golden age of Disney. It was the first animated film ever to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and won, quite rightly, for Alan Menken’s score and one of the three nominated songs.
It’s the music that makes it particularly special, and appreciating that is entirely the point of the live-action remake. It’s hard to imagine a case for this film’s existence without the songs – without, say, that five-note “Tale as Old as Time” motif, which rivals the one from Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a call-sign for a entire shared past of filmgoing.
Easily the best move of Bill Condon’s generous update is to grasp the nettle and make an out-an-out, bells-and-whistles musical: something none of Disney’s other refurbishments of its back catalogue lately, from Maleficent through Cinderella and The Jungle Book, have quite had the gumption to attempt.
Menken’s score, and the evergreen lyrics of Howard Ashman – the genius of his art who died before he could even see the original film – are the pulse, the purpose and headline draw.
Not that the design team, headed by the Atonement duo Sarah Greenwood (sets) and Jacqueline Durran (costumes, including that yellow one) have taken a back seat. The Beast’s castle is a triumph – a gnarled, craggy seat of foreboding, with acres of winter garden laid out before it like some frozen-over Versailles. Inside, it’s a darkly sumptuous Gothic dream, with Belle’s bedchamber fit for Marie-Antoinette, and the library… well, just you wait.
What’s changed? A running time that’s 45 minutes longer than before allows scope for expansion, including three new Menken songs, which hit character beats and fill in backstory elegantly enough: he’s not trying to bowl us over with these. A prologue now tells us of the Prince (a powdered Dan Stevens, formerly of Downton Abbey), the curse, and the red rose with its dropping petals; there’s more later on Belle’s dead mama, and a deeper relationship with her dad (Kevin Kline), too.
But the core of the story is blissfully intact. It’s fitting, for a tale about gradually discovering inner beauty, that the Beast is tricky to know at first: withheld from our sympathy, hard to recognise as Stevens through the digital fur.
Scene by scene, the film takes its time with him, and we get the hang of the character at the same pace that Belle does. Once he’s belting out baritone laments from the blackened eyries of his home, we’ve understood his soul.
Emma Watson isn’t a flawless Belle. However overawed the character should be by her surroundings, there’s a lack of confidence in her gait – she sometimes seems to be hitting marks obediently rather than owning each moment. But she’s good: that girl-next-door winsomeness and a sweet, clear singing voice see her through.
She’s ideal in close-up, a charming reactor in that trickiest aspect of her craft – feigning delight at dancing crockery. Perhaps Harry Potter gave her an inside track at doing this so well.
And what a makeover the contents of the castle’s scullery have received. The biggest names in the cast line up to do their bit: you might consider Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson vastly overqualified to be voicing a grumpy old mantel clock and a chirpy tea pot respectively, but once you’ve heard their interpretations, you wouldn’t want anyone else having a go.
Resurrecting some of his Moulin Rouge! va-va-voom, Ewan McGregor is especially delightful as Lumière, the affable candlestick-MC. Menken-Ashman’s Be Our Guest, in Condon’s hands, flings out a show-stopping kaleidoscope of state-of-the-art dazzlement, with perfect licence to get as trippy as it damn well chooses. It even tops the original – talk about throwing in everything and the kitchen sink.
Back in the village, everything’s similarly and satisfyingly familiar – well, except maybe that doting lickspittle of the hunter Gaston, LeFou (Josh Gad), who has been reimagined as a slightly gross and obvious closet case. Much has been made of Disney’s first “overtly gay” gesture in the ballroom-dance finale, but this lasts a fraction of a second – hardly enough to redeem the non-progressive, smirked-at stereotype we otherwise get throughout.
Still, Luke Evans is utterly perfect as Gaston – malignly virile, a camp narcissist in all the right ways, and a paragon of macho bigotry whose sway over the townsfolk has real weight in the third act. His signature song is naturally Gad and Evans’s showpiece, and it clicks whatever your qualms.
After all, it’s scientifically impossible to hear Ashman’s “I use antlers in all of my DECORATING!” without wanting to hand the whole sequence a bouquet. Or, ahem, sorry, a manly handshake. (Gaston’s own sexuality remains, shall we say, a lively debating point.)
It hardly needs saying that this is not a film for cynics, or anyone with the remotest Disney allergy, or anyone hostile to the whole idea of jukebox revamps. If you’re ticking any one of those boxes, stay away, and if it’s all three, what even are you?
Condon has done virtually everything in his power to make this film work, down to a sugar-rush finale which makes the star cameos pay off like bonus punchlines – or those “very special guest” appearances for 10 seconds at the end of a panto. Gorging all at once on this chocolate box of a picture feels almost greedy, but why stop at once? A large chunk of its audience will be straight back in line for seconds.
Beauty and the Beast is in cinemas on March 17