Review: Live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is glorified eye candy

Before I delve into Bill Condon’s effervescent and joyous Beauty and the Beast, there’s a minor confession that needs to be laid bare:  I hadn’t watched the 1991 animated classic prior to seeing the live-action version.  As it turns out, this situation worked out perfectly for it allowed the story and the musical numbers to unfold naturally for me.  Condon’s live-action version is directly based on the 1991 story, itself a revival of the French classic fairy tale, La Belle et la Bête by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

Full of lively characters, Condon’s interpretation of this classic is part Moulin Rouge, part The Sound of Music where a flair for color and quick camera transitions to the tune of upbeat musical numbers melds with modern technical advancements showing depth and scale.  This version of Beast has a humanity and vividness about it where appearances are not everything they seem.

Despite the draw-dropping images, the story is relatively untouched from the 1991 version, which is a problem.  The one-dimensional story doesn’t truly convey the consequences of the Beast’s vanity or of Belle’s carefree attitudes.  Those choices are left to the interpretation of the actors.  Dan Stevens is the highlight while Emma Watson felt too proper for someone who should have been worldlier, though Stevens compliments her grace and style.

Dan Stevens had the unenviable task of acting twice; once for the cameras with Emma Watson and the other actors, and a second time for the motion capture systems to be computer animated as the actual Beast.  The results shine when you see the Beast on the screen, there is a much wider range of motion and emotion that was not present in the animated version.  The production went to great lengths to build real sets and what was a signature moment in the animated version, is once again so.  Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler manages to capture the epic stature that Condon intended, but the work also feels staged.

Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos do tap in to some elements which were only alluded to in 1991.  The most obvious difference is LeFou’s flamboyance, the first openly gay character in a Disney movie, and his adoration for Gaston, which has upset some audiences and theaters.  Of course, Josh Gad and Luke Evans play off the relationship very effectively, a compliment to Condon’s steady direction.  The dynamics of Belle and the Beast’s relationship has changed for the better giving Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and Chip (newcomer Nathan Mack), Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) much more to do.  Each of the respective voice talents shines through and to see their human forms at the end was pure joy.  Maurice as a character has been slightly altered, giving Kevin Kline the opportunity to show his range, his child-like qualities well-suited to the character especially when he discovers that Belle has learned the truth about her mother; one of the few expanded story elements that works.

Alan Menkin returns to the work that he started in 1991 and succeeds brilliantly here, bringing on additional songs created for the Broadway musical.  Emma Thompson performs a beautiful rendition of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ originally performed by Angela Lansbury.

Bill Condon brought Disney’s classic to life with characters who leap off the screen, with touches to please most modern audiences.  Despite the advancements in technology, the story didn’t quite follow the same path, remaining one-dimensional.

Beauty and the Beast is Recommended.

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