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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Classic Tale Brought to Life

Written by  Chuck Duncan

Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast shifts fantasy into hyperreal overdrive

It’s the “tale as old as time” that Disney brought to the big screen in a wondrous animated version back in 1991, scoring the first ever Best Picture Oscar nomination for an animated film (and still the only one to this day). Then Disney saw more magic (and profit potential) in producing a live Broadway musical version in 1994 where it was nominated for nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, winning for Best Costume Design. And now everything is coming full circle as Disney brings Beauty and the Beast back to the big screen as a live action musical (with heavy doses of computer-graphic animation).

You know the story: “odd” girl Belle (Emma Watson), odd only because she, horrors, likes to read and has ambitions that don’t include settling down with the overbearingly macho Gaston (Luke Evans), finds herself at first a prisoner, then a guest of sorts, in the hidden castle inhabited by animated furniture and utensils and a Beast, who is actually a cruel, heartless prince with a curse on his head. Of course, the curse can be broken if the Beast can find love, but time is running out as the petals on an enchanted rose begin to fall. You know the rest.

If you’ve loved the animated film for the past 26 years, you are most likely going to love the new movie as well. Many critics are giving the new film unjustifiably bad reviews because they say it’s pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of the cartoon but ... so what? There is certainly enough movie magic on display here to set it apart enough but not so far as to be totally alien to the fans. If you’re remaking a movie musical and using all of the original songs and telling a familiar story, you can’t throw the fans off by making something so different that they’ll hate it. Some of these critics need to get down off of their high horses. I think the animated film is wonderful, but the live action version really grabbed my heart, even if I do have one little nitpick that I’ll get to in a moment.

The human cast of Beauty and the Beast, or rather those playing non-enchanted humans, are absolute perfection. Watson really brings Belle to life, able to fend off Gaston’s advances as well as the Beast’s threatening nature when she discovers her father (Kevin Kline) is imprisoned. She’s a feisty heroine that any little girl can look up to, smart, brave and kind. Evans is a hoot as the egomaniac Gaston, but as he starts out the film as a bit of an oafish musclehead, he really becomes a villain you despise as he tries to have Belle and her father locked away while he goes off to kill the Beast. Josh Gad is also terrific as Gaston’s servant (?) LeFou, serving up a lot of innuendo, pretty innocent at that, that some people have found objectionable even before seeing the film. But this is a story about accepting yourself and others without making snap judgments. If there’s any “agenda” here, it’s one of inclusiveness.

Dan Stevens has the hardest role as the Beast, buried for the majority of the film under a ton of computer-generated makeup and costuming, but in the close-up shots of his face, he manages to bring quite a lot of emotion to the role whether it’s anger, confusion, disgust or love. A remarkable achievement since he basically had to play the role twice to meld all of the special effects needed to bring the Beast to life.

And herein lies my previously mentioned nitpick: the close-ups of the Beast are amazingly realistic. You’d swear Stevens was buried under a ton of prosthetics, but it’s all digital wizardry. It’s the wider shots of the Beast, particularly when he’s walking, that just look a little wonky, almost like stop motion animation. Additionally, some of the shots which required computer-graphic imagery (CGI) environments, such as the rolling hills outside of Belle’s village, are also a bit too hyper-realistic. I noticed it all, and I’m usually a stickler for expecting these things to be basically invisible but the movie is so good, so beautiful, so emotional that I can forgive those shortcomings. Most people will probably never notice anyway.

The film has gorgeous production design and costuming, and all of the animated characters are brought fully to life through the talents of the CGI artists and the actors including Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts. When you can feel, tears welling up in your eyes as a teapot frantically searches for her son before they become permanently changed, you know that everyone has done their jobs. And the film does take a very dark, heartbreaking turn before the climactic (spoiler alert!) “happily, ever after.”

All of the original film’s classic songs are present, including the opening number “Belle” to get you in the mood, to the splashy “Be Our Guest” production number and the awkwardly romantic ballroom dance to the title tune. There are also four new songs including “Aria” song by Audra McDonald at the Prince’s ball during the film’s prologue, “Days in the Sun,” “Evermore” which gives the Beast a big solo moment, and a song by Céline Dion, “How Does a Moment Last Forever,” over the end credits. There is also a reprise of “Beauty and the Beast” by Ariana Grande and John Legend, and “Evermore” by Josh Groban over the end credits as well.

If you’re a fan of the animated film or the Broadway musical, I can’t see any reason you’d find fault with the film’s familiarity. Its lush, gorgeous scenery will transport you to a whole new world and the story, music and performances will tug at your heart. And I highly recommend taking the opportunity to experience the film in Imax 3D. The entire movie has been formatted for the giant screen and the 3D will totally immerse you in the environment. It is a spectacle not to be missed.

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