Grade: A/A-
Entire family: Yes
2017, 129 min., Color
Family musical fantasy
Disney
Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

We seem to have entered a new era of live-action Disney remakes of animated classics.

After a 2014 revisionist Sleeping Beauty story of Maleficent that divided critics, a trio of remakes—Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), and Pete’s Dragon (2016)—fared nearly as well with reviewers as they did at the box office. More live-action remakes are in the works: The Sword and the Stone, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Alice and Maleficent sequels, Cruella (an attempt to improve on the 1996 101 Dalmatians flop), Winnie the Pooh, Mulan, Tink (a Peter Pan spinoff), Prince Charming (a Cinderella spinoff), Genies (an Aladdin prequel), and Night on Bald Mountain (a Fantasia adaptation). It other words, it’s getting real.

Predictably, not everyone is a fan. More audience members (83 percent) liked 2017’s Beauty and the Beast than critics (71 percent), but if you read between the lines you’ll see that the naysayers are mostly purists who think that nothing can compare to the 1991 film many consider to be the high point of Disney animation—one that, like The Lion King, inspired a Broadway version. Additional objections came from closet homophobes who took exception with the slightly flamboyant performance that Josh Gad (Olaf, in Frozen) gave of La Fou, sidekick to the film’s egotistical, intimidating villain. But hey, he’s a musical theater guy, this is musical theater, and children will see in his performance the same kind of second-fiddle comedy as his cartoon counterpart provided.

Our family watched Beauty and the Beast separately—my son, on his college campus; my wife and daughter, at a local theater; and me, when it finally came out on Blu-ray this week—but we all had the same reaction: We loved it.

Disney excels in creating movie worlds, and to create this one they decided against straight live-action and incorporated 1700 visual effects using both old and new technology. Watch a bonus feature and you’ll see Dan Stevens, who plays the beast, decked out in a full-body motion-capture suit, and you’ll see Emma Watson as Belle sitting at a table full of objects—the only actor in the room, because all of the other characters were CGI. But you’ll also see green screen work and matte backgrounds, and the combination of old and new techniques fashion a world that’s live-action but still altered reality—timeless, fantastic.

Gad says that everyone brought their “A” game and you can see it on the screen. That A-game began with a romping, boisterous “table read” that included dancing, singing, pretend swordfights—everything we see in the film. It was clear that Disney meant to pull out all the stops and really nail this, and our family thought they did just that.

The project must have felt both new and strangely familiar to Watson, since Disney filmed at Shepperton Studios in England—the same studio where she and her young castmates shot Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Watson was a perfect choice to play Belle, as her “fantasy cred” is already high and it’s easy to believe her as the fairytale Beauty. Her singing voice is pleasant, too, though the best singer of the bunch is musical theater veteran Luke Evans, who plays a Gaston every bit as robust, menacing, and self-absorbed as the animated version.

Stevens, meanwhile, makes for a convincing Beast, and both are helped by a screenplay that sought to quell any Stockholm Syndrome talk and answer the big question: Why would Belle fall for the Beast? What was in each of their pasts and personalities that might serve as common ground for mutual attraction? Providing backstories for each and answering those questions are the main deviations from the animated version.

Otherwise, apart from incorporating additional songs, Disney follows the same path as the original: Belle wishes for more than “this provincial life,” but in requesting her father bring her back a rose from his travels she inadvertently sets the plot in motion. After being attacked by wolves and seeking refuge in a nearby castle, he’s sentenced to life in the castle prison for stealing a rose. When his horse returns and Belle tracks him down, she offers herself in his place. Meanwhile, her father returns to town and tries to get them to rescue his daughter, but they think he’s crazy. But Gaston, eventually, will lead armed peasants in an assault on the castle. As Watson says, it’s a musical, it’s a fantasy, it’s an action movie, and it’s a drama—four genres in one.

Small children will find the wolfpack attack even more frightening in live action, but the Beast is toned down a bit from the animated original—or maybe it just seems that way since his transformation begins more immediately and there is greater depth in the Beast’s character that makes him seem more instantly likable. Then again, director Bill Condon—who was behind the camera for two of The Twilight Saga films—knows a thing or two about bad-boy, good-girl teen attraction. Ultimately, the Beast isn’t as bad as he appears, and the sorceress (Hattie Morahan) who pinned that curse on him has a bigger role in the live-action version.

Some critics have groused about weak links, but we didn’t see any. The whole cast was remarkable—energetic, “animated,” and wholly believable—whether we’re talking about Belle’s father Maurice (Kevin Kline), Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), or Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci). Ultimately, while the story is the same, it feels like a completely different movie from the 1991 animated classic. And as long as that feeling persists, Disney can remake animated films as much as they want.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: The wolf attack can be frightening, as can the Beast’s initial rage and a climactic scene when one character dies and another appears dead
Adult situations: A pub scene, but the music distracts from anything adult
Takeaway: Empowered by advances in CGI special effects, Disney seems to have found their live-action stride again

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