It’s been awhile since Fluffy published a film review, not for lack of having seen good films, but this Disney remake of one of my favorite movies ever cried out for review in a way few works do. I was super excited for the remake as soon as I heard casting details (as a fan of both the Harry Potter universe and Downton Abbey, I was particularly stoked to see what Emma Watson and Dan Stevens would bring to the beloved titular characters), but just a little anxious about the tampering with a classic. The original animated film was near perfect after all, and instrumental in cementing my Disney fangirling well into my adulthood (it came out in my late teens, and settled any lingering doubts I should leave animation behind as an art form for kids only; I still think it was robbed for Best Picture that year). So, how would the live action film stack up against the animated version?
I found I need not have worried, though I was a bit confused after seeing publicity photos of the household servants as candelabra and teapots and whatnot. They didn’t seem to translate well to more realistic CGI rendering, particularly Ewan McGregor’s Lumiere. However, stills and action are not the same thing, and the visuals turned out to be delightful; by the end of “Be Our Guest” I had warmed completely to these new versions of the familiar characters, though the film had easily reeled me in long before that.
The opening sequence established a bit more of the Beast’s backstory than we got in the stained-glass intro of the original, as well as filling in a few plot holes fans had noticed over the years. And Watson’s Belle was of course radiant from her first appearance. She gets a lot more backstory also, and emerges as the inventor of her family rather than her father, who is instead, as played by the always-amazing Kevin Kline, an artist. The viewer gets a great sense of Belle’s disillusionment with her small town and its small minds, especially that of Gaston (Luke Evans), whose violent tendencies and selfishness are even more apparent here than in the original, his determination to marry Belle somehow creepier and more stalker-y than before.
The real magic begins when Belle rescues her father from imprisonment in the Beast’s castle, taking his place as prisoner before promising him to escape and reunite with him. This is far better plotted than in the animation, as Belle here blames herself for asking her father for the rose the Beast believes him to have stolen. The tale continues from here in the time-honored fashion; after the visually stunning “Be Our Guest” sequence, Belle is caught examining the enchanted rose whose falling petals mark the timeline of the Beast’s curse and flees the castle in the wake of his rage, only for him to ultimately save her from a pack of scary, ravening wolves. She gets him back to the castle and patches him up, the ice between them now broken as they begin to discover things in common and strike up a friendship. More detail is lavished on their commonalities than before: both are well-read intellectuals who share many views and just seem to click on every level (Watson and Stevens have chemistry for days), and their eventual romance makes even more sense.
Additional story elements flesh out both characters’ backstories even further. Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) relates via flashback how the Beast became selfish and uncaring after the death of his mother, and a magical book left by the enchantress who cursed him allows us to see the loss of Belle’s mother and understand a bit more about her father’s motivations. By the time the Beast and Belle decide to hold a ball for just themselves, they are well-drawn, three-dimensional characters– which makes their coming separation, due to Gaston’s mistreatment of Belle’s father, all the more poignant. The climactic sequence changes slightly from the original, with Gaston shooting the Beast in the back rather than wounding him with a sword; the staging of Gaston’s fatal fall is changed as well, but it is equally effective, as is the Beast’s final redemptive transformation after Belle’s admission of love. (Cue gales of tears from Fluffy here; I do love a happy ending, and Dan Stevens in human form.)
The overall look and feel of the film is completely immersive and magical. I found the added elements to the story beneficial and at times, such as in the case of the servants being permanently transformed into inanimate objects when the curse plays out, more moving than the original (how pathetic was the little footstool-dog, FrouFrou, frantically pawing at his silent friends until he too succumbed, landing upside-down and motionless?). Great big props to director Bill Condon for creating a film that not only lives up to its distinguished predecessor, but occasionally surpasses it, and to all the actors and artists involved. The Seriouslyfluffy Final Grade: A