In my favourite scene in the new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, gold leaves float down from the ceiling and stick onto Belle’s sunshine yellow dress. It’s the only time I felt a certain wonder and a sense that the filmmakers had truly re-imagined an all-too-familiar fable.
Hollywood doesn’t seem to tire of Beauty and The Beast. Remakes in different formats, with live actors, animation or a mix of both, working with new technologies and rearranging the classic songs -- it’s all been done.
In this latest musical drama, directed by Bill Condon from a script by Stephen Chbosky and Even Spiliotopoulos, the 1991 animated Disney film has been tweaked, but the source material is still the famous French fairy tale that explores the notion that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. What do you do to make such an oft-interpreted story seem original and distinctive? You add new songs, amp up the idiosyncrasies of the recognizable characters, embellish the design with exquisite detailing, cast popular actors and add a dose of humour and a wink by making one of the characters gay (LeFou, played by Josh Gad).
The film opens with the tale of the prince (Dan Stevens) cursed by a beggar woman who transforms him into a ghastly beast and casts a spell on all the other living things in the castle. The beastly prince’s fate is linked to a single rose. The falling of the last petal will mean he will forever be entrapped in that gigantic wolf-like form, unless he can find true love.
Some years pass. Not too far away, we see Belle (Emma Watson) with her nose buried in a book. She’s an oddity in her parochial village, a free-spirited young woman who dreams of a life beyond the confines of the village and its small-mindedness. Belle lives with her widower father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), and is being courted by the narcissistic soldier Gaston (Luke Evans), who doesn’t take kindly to being rejected by Belle.
One night Maurice gets lost during a storm and stumbles upon the forgotten castle, a dark and depressing place where it snows even in June. Heading out in search of her missing father, Belle comes to the castle and frees her imprisoned father by swapping places with him as the Beast’s prisoner. What follows is an ancient French version of Stockholm syndrome. Belle realises that beneath the grisly, growling exterior is a kind and gentle soul who is also her intellectual equal (high five for gender equality). Acting as matchmakers are sundry objects in the castle such as a teapot, a candelabra, a clock and a piano. A-list talents including Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci voice the singing, dancing, speaking, scheming objects, some with annoyingly fake French accents.
Despite Watson’s allure, Evans’ preening and Stevens’ oscillation between animalistic and insecure, Condon’s recreation of this world is over-designed and distracting. The songs (old and new) seem tired, adding to the lethargy of the storytelling which occasionally pauses to admire its own opulence.