When I saw Disney’s animated version of Beauty and the Beast in 1991, I had a revelation. Though the computerized imagery neither recaptured the hand-drawn magic of the studio’s pioneering days nor measured up to the hieratic grandeur of Jean Cocteau’s 1944 version of the famous tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaument, I still felt that something interesting had happened. Disney features had always included songs (some of them had won Academy Awards), but Beauty’s tightly structured script was modeled after a Broadway book. The first song was the same sort of introductory ensemble number that explains the characters and initiates the action of so many musicals. And after the fight with the wolves, you could practically see the curtain come down for the intermission. Let Stephen Sondheim and his ilk innovate to their hearts’ content; in the hands of Disney and songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the old-timey, show-stopping formula was safe on the silver screen.
And soon enough the show came home, so to speak, when the animated film was turned into an actual Broadway musical. Now, with a live-actor movie adaptation of both the cartoon and the play, the cycle is complete. At least I hope so. The new movie, directed by Bill Condon, comes across as skillful but somewhat overcooked—as the musicals My Fair Lady and The Music Man were when they finally reached the screen. The proficiency of the new Beauty’s makers is obvious, but a certain jadedness has set in. The visuals are high-tech and even galvanizing, but there’s a little too much swirling, twirling camerawork.
There’s also, it should be said, a real gain in using live actors, as the Cocteau masterpiece demonstrated long ago. With animation, the contrast between the “normal” humans and the spellbound characters (the Beast, the talking furniture, et al.) wasn’t great since everyone was a cartoon. Now that Beauty is the flesh-and-blood Emma Watson, we share her amazement at the magic menagerie.
Watson is convincingly pensive as the bookish Belle. (Her cartoon counterpart was drawn to look like a high-school cheerleader, so it was hard to believe she ever cracked a book.) But the thespian honors go to Kevin Kline, who makes Belle’s father a true philosophe instead of the bumbling idiot that the 1991 film gave us. And Luke Evans triumphs as the despicable suitor Gaston. He is so juicily villainous that kids will both accept and applaud his grim demise. As far as the singing goes, you can only pity the merely adequate vocalists who have to share the soundtrack with Audra McDonald as the singing wardrobe. The best, as they say, tends to be the enemy of the good.