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