It doesn’t feel an overstatement to suggest that Howard Ashman was absolutely key in transforming the lumbering beast that Walt Disney Animation had started to resemble in the mid-80s into the fleet-of-foot animation royalty that dominated the 90s and heralded an era of musical hit after musical hit. He did it through the gift of song – his artistic vision and a lyricist’s pen dripping with inspiration that was at its most passionately effective in partnership with his long term creative collaborator, Disney Legend Alan Menken. The 14th of March marks the 26th anniversary of his sadly premature loss, so it seems a fitting moment to return to some of his very finest work with the company as Disney indulges in its latest project to reinvent its back catalogue into live action for fun and profit.
If Bill Condon (Twilight: Breaking Dawn 1 & 2, Mr Holmes) attempts to tighten up the more dated elements of the tale as old as time by developing its independent and intelligent heroine’s back story, there’s no need to lift a finger to invigorate the music: it’s aged perfectly. The sole bum note is the Beast’s new number, a rather pedestrian lament penned by Sir Tim Rice (who also completed Ashman’s work on Aladdin) – though it’s good to see the cursed Prince get his due with a bit more character development. Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens brings a note of gruff sarcasm to his performance which is warm and welcome; he’s also provided with hints of a more complex story than simply ‘petulant child’, and this helps with what has always been a tough sell of a romance – even more challenging with live action characters and hard-working CGI and prosthetics than it is with animated protagonists.
The supporting cast is stalwart and solid; Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth is reliably…McKellian. Ewan McGregor can safely be counted on to belt out a rousing tune; his Lumiere’s Be Our Guest might lack the tongue-in-cheek suaveness of the sorely missed Jerry Orbach but taken as its own performance is still a Busby Berkeley extravaganza in which the running joke of Belle failing to actually get to eat anything remains. Audra MacDonald’s Mme Garderobe gets a fuller role and injects necessary notes of both pathos and jollity as a result of her continuing love affair with harpsichord husband Mastro Cadenza- a newly-created character and gleeful cameo from Stanley Tucci and his spectacular dentures. The challenges here are largely of realisation rather than performance; where Cogsworth and the Maestro’s household objects lend themselves to mimicking facial expressions, Lumiere’s tiny face, Mrs Potts’ flat surface and the wardrobe’s unnerving facelessness are at times slightly unnerving. While this doesn’t prevent national treasure Emma Thompson from being bumblingly charming and pretty much pulling off that crucial titular ballad, she’s one of the few characters that is preferable in her briefly-observed human form.
But what of Belle herself? Emma Watson’s is a very cool and reserved take on one of Disney’s more fearless heroines. In many ways she’s a more realistic introvert, and there are some touching moments, such as a small bubbling up of glee at being given the library to explore and in the richer relationship with the delightful Kevin Kline’s Einsteinian Maurice. Still, this interpretation leaves some of the high drama sadly lacking; for one, her Fraulein Maria hilltop moment is oddly muted. It perhaps doesn’t help that Watson is well nigh steamrollered by an absolute barnstormer of a performance from Luke Evans on full-bodied form as Gaston, rolling effortlessly from high camp to cartoonish villainy with a genuine note of unhinged violence. Where Be Our Guest and Beauty and the Beast should dominate the score, it’s actually tub-thumping tavern jig Gaston and menacing rabble-rouser Kill the Beast that lead the way as the film’s most engaging musical moments. There’s been much press coverage of Josh Gad’s Le Fou being the first obviously gay Disney character, though this is rather more disappointingly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it than advertised; still, he’s an able enough foil for his puffed-up partner in crime, even if his conflicted moments are a little lacklustre.
Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is a beauty but a funny film; just a touch too paint-by-numbers to attain the high standards set by Jon Favreau’s lavish and loveable take on The Jungle Book and certainly not about to replace the near-perfect Ashman swansong from which it took its cue. But it’s an affectionately crafted and solidly enjoyable family night out; the lights of its most stirring numbers remain undimmed and that wickedly effective Gaston is possibly even an improvement on the source material. If, being honest, it wouldn’t be included in the bookshelves of the mind where my most prized treasures rest together, I wouldn’t refuse to include it in the library.
Beauty and the Beast is on UK general release from Friday March 17th. Many thanks to @disney_uk for two press preview tickets. All opinions my own; more blog-based movie reviews here; even more film stuff on my Letterboxd profile.