By Daniel Dunaief
The latest version of “Beauty and the Beast,” which broke box office records when it opened last weekend, offers a visually stunning montage, as one magnificent set blends into the next in a familiar story that, not much of a spoiler here, tracks the well-known story.
The sets, cinematography and songs take center stage in this live-action remake, as Disney spared no expense to make the enchanted castle, the quiet village where every day is like the one before, and the journey through the forest between them as detailed and lavish as the animated version. The script and main actors, including Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast, are fine, but not extraordinary.
Disney may not have wanted to tinker too much with a classic film and its well-known dialog, leaving the original script largely unchanged. That is both for the better and the worse, as this current incarnation lacks a novel flavor, a new Disney humor and charm, or the opportunity to explore much more about the characters. There are a few welcome moments when the audience learns more about unfortunate events in Belle and the Beast’s past, but those are short-lived in a film that is over two hours.
Luke Evans does a serviceable job as Gaston, conveying the narcissistic brute who seems more in love with his own reflection than he is with Belle or anyone else. The charm or the irresistibility the villagers feel for him is not evident to Belle or to the audience.
Josh Gad provides welcome comic relief as Gaston’s companion LeFou, fawning over him and calming him down when things don’t go his way. Gad takes his character further than the animated version of LeFou, becoming impish and playful.
Like the Broadway version of the classic animated film “Aladdin” and its “Never Had a Friend Like Me” song, “Beauty and the Beast” somehow equals and, in some ways, exceeds the original film with its “Be Our Guest” feature. While Belle prepares for her meal, the creatures of the castle surround her with food, song and spectacle.
While the script and the characters stay true to the Broadway and animated versions of the story, the visual details truly make the film memorable. The finale in the castle looks like the kind of details an eager bride would include if she had an unlimited budget, with symmetrical floral arrangements, magnificent lighting, perfectly spaced dancers and a cast of characters delighted to share in the space.
For parents, the scenes of peril with the wolves outside the Beast’s castle are familiar and filled with the same kind of potential for danger. Young children will likely be as concerned for the welfare of Belle and the Beast in the wolf scenes of this film as they would be watching the animated version.
The fight scene between the Beast and Gaston also involves some peril, with Gaston displaying a combination of cowardice and villainy. At the same time, the fight scene between the villagers incited by Gaston to battle and the members of the enchanted castle who are defending themselves also contains some of the few moments of humor in a film that otherwise takes its tale and the retelling of it seriously.
Some of the other cast members, including Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, have a tough act to follow, repeating familiar phrases and songs from Angela Lansbury. Thompson holds her own, regaling the audience with the lyrics from a tale as old as time.
The three-dimensional version of the film included a few noticeable effects, including when Belle and the Beast engage in a snowball fight. It also adds some depth to the image of the castle and the trek through the woods. The additional expense, however, didn’t seem especially necessary, given an elaborate attention to other visual details.