If you’ve seen the 1991 animated film then you already know what’s going to happen, as this is a slavishly faithful remake. But in case you had a very deprived, Beauty And The Beast-less childhood, social outcast Belle (Emma Watson) finds herself the captive of an enchanted Beast (Dan Stevens) when she saves her father from him. Romance and joyous musical numbers follow.
It’s a little jarring at first to see a human, live-action Belle strolling out of her house and breaking into song, but the film finds its stride almost immediately and is enormously sure of itself from the off. Luke Evans swaggers onto the screen as if no other Gaston has come before him, and Kevin Kline’s performance as the tender-hearted Maurice instantly grounds and humanises Watson’s Belle. Watson is fine as Belle, with a sweet if underpowered singing voice, but she’s not as memorable as some of the other cast members, and is often lost in the spectacle.
That spectacle really kicks in once Belle arrives at the Beast’s castle, a triumph of CGI and practical sets. The enchanted servants, so charming in the original film, are given more facial features here and come across as creepy rather than whimsical, despite excellent voice work from Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor and an underused Ian McKellen. ‘Be Our Guest‘, probably the most memorable song from the original film, is a riot of colour and CGI, with McGregor clearly enjoying himself, but it falls emotionally flat compared to the songs performed by the live-action cast.
Dan Stevens initially seems horribly miscast as the stomping, raging Beast, buried so deep in CGI and voice effects that you wonder why they didn’t just cast a bigger guy with a deeper voice. But Stevens comes into his own as the Beast softens. The film adds some nice extra character detail to the Beast, so we see him not only regain his humanity, but also revert back to the sweeter young man he was before he became the cruel and shallow Prince. With every nervous shrug and uncertain half-smile, Stevens goes from being miscast to being possibly the film’s strongest point, and it makes the romance between him and Belle far more believable – and far less like Stockholm Syndrome – than in the original film.
The film also digs deeper into the comical characters, finding a deep nastiness in Gaston and an emerging conscience in LeFou, while Kline is quite simply wonderful as Maurice. The film stands above the original when it takes the time to progress its characters – Belle has far more agency than before, Gaston truly works as a villain and the Beast becomes a layered and interesting romantic lead, with a new song all of his own (the only new song than genuinely earns its place in the film). Anyone who has ever gradually fallen in love with a friend will relate fiercely to the song ‘Something There‘, which works better here than in the original.
The problem with Beauty And The Beast is that it sticks too close to the original animation – but it’s a tricky problem to overcome, because that nostalgia factor is also its strength. Whole chunks of dialogue are repeated word-for-word from the original, and while new character beats are woven in, there aren’t really any new subplots (there’s half a subplot, but it’s mostly unnecessary). The film loses some of the magic of the animated film (the ballroom set-piece can’t touch the original, and the servants don’t work half as well), but you’ll still watch it with an enormous grin on your face.