Review: ‘Beauty and the Beast’ dazzles with modern technology

Above: (Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures) Movie reviews | 8 Mar, 2017 |

A tale as old as time? Maybe not: the original story is about 4,000 years old. But 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast” is a tale at least as old as 1991.

Disney is in the middle of a live-action rampage, remaking many of their animated classics and igniting the nostalgia fires of fans worldwide. Not that there’s any good reason to (besides mountains of cash) — none of the remakes so far have proved that these stories need retelling. Yet, somehow, they’ve all been great: unnecessary, but well done and nice to see replicated with today’s technology.

“Beauty and the Beast” falls into this same category like a rose petal drifting gently downwards. The well-known narrative and themes pass by beat for beat, but a splendid new flair brings love and life to the story like never before.

As far as the plot is concerned: if you’ve seen 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast”, there will be no surprises here. Previous Disney remakes have added minor twists for the sake of modernity, but this is easily the most faithful adaption. Which is a safe bet because “Beauty and the Beast” is the best animated Disney classic (this is objective fact).

If anyone deserves credit for adding a fresh spin to the story, it’s the illustrious Emma Watson. She demonstrates both her renowned intellect and acting proficiency with her version of Belle: small, subdued touches in her facial expressions and body language build up a confident self-assuredness. Watson takes the character’s baseline feminist inclinations and internalizes them into real, human, womanhood. This Belle is — dare I say it — a more effective role model for young girls than the original.

If you follow film controversy, you may know that Josh Gad’s LeFou was updated in the name of representation. Unfortunately the screenwriters aren’t brave enough with the decision: the change is barely noticeable. Still, it’s encouraging to see Disney widening its character demographics.

The point of remaking the olden Disney films is ostensibly to display in lifelike glory what could once only be drawn. On that front, “Beauty and the Beast” delivers magnificently. The animation work literally stole my breath away. The imposing ferocity but underlying tenderness of the beast, the cornucopia of living housewares moving in mesmerizing harmony, the saturated colors of the castle and its landscapes, the bustling French village from which Belle springs — all rendered as vividly as a fantastical dream.

There are a few moments that clearly involve a couple humans plopped in front of a green screen, but largely “Beauty and the Beast” is a rousing slice of computer-generated heaven. It’s as delicate as the hand drawn original in an entirely different way. The parade of visual splendor that accompanies “Be Our Guest” is a dizzyingly entertaining high point.

Director Bill Condon switches up the pacing of the remake slightly to flesh out supporting characters, which both benefits and detriments the film. Lumière and his gang of enchanted objects receive increased attention, raising their emotional stakes and giving recognizable talents opportunities to show off their voice work (Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson and Ian McKellen? Oh my!) But the central romance has been given short shrift.

The filmmakers rely on viewers knowing beforehand that Belle and the beast will fall in love. To be fair, escaping that knowledge is practically impossible, but little is done to make the relationship feel authentic again. This “Beauty and the Beast” is less interested in redeveloping the romance than it is in rebuilding its world.

And what a musical world it remains! The best soundtrack in Disney history (this is also objective fact) remains to uplift the remake, filling out the corners of its world with wondrous sound. Sing along if your heart so desires.

The magic of seeing “Beauty and the Beast” burst to life like this is great enough on its own accord. Fans of the original will find so much to love.

★★★★ (4/5)

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