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Dustin Putman

Beauty and the Beast  (2017)
3½ Stars
Directed by Bill Condon.
Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Mack, Hattie Morahan, Adrian Schiller, Haydn Gwynne, Zoe Rainey.
2017 – 129 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for some violence, peril and frightening images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, March 3, 2017.
Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise's 1991 hand-drawn Disney classic receives a marvelous live-action remake with "Beauty and the Beast." Exquisitely directed by Bill Condon (2006's "Dreamgirls") and sensitively written by Stephen Chbosky (2012's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower") and Evan Spiliotopoulos (2014's "Hercules"), this expansive adaptation feels like a cinematic event as it plays out, an extravaganza of goosebump-inducing melody, heart and daring. Impressive in vision and scope—there most certainly was no expense spared in bringing this tale as old as time to the screen—the film wows on a visual level but impresses just as mightily in its treatment of character and messages of embracing one's individuality and intelligence. As for the unlikely love story which develops between its two protagonists, winsome chemistry is in large supply as something altogether deeper—something there that wasn't there before in the more streamlined 84-minute animated version—is realized.

Ambitious, book-loving Belle (Emma Watson) wants adventure in the great wide somewhere, and she's not going to find it in the arms of handsome buffoon Gaston (Luke Evans) or in the provincial, small-minded French village where she lives with her merchant father Maurice (Kevin Kline). When Maurice goes missing during a business trip, Belle finds him locked in a grand, snowswept castle, imprisoned by the Beast (Dan Stevens) for plucking a rose from the garden for his daughter. To save her dad, she agrees to take his place. Befriended by living objects who once were human friends and servants of the cursed Prince-turned-Beast, Belle gradually comes around to discover the kind-hearted soul behind her captor's gruff exterior. What she doesn't know is that the Beast's only hope to reverse the spell is in the love of another before the last petal falls from a mystical rose locked away in the castle's west wing.

The grey stuff might be delicious, but so is nearly every other moment of "Beauty and the Beast." Fans of rousing movie musicals in general—but especially those with an affection for the lovely earlier Disney edition (the first animated feature to ever be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar)—will be in heaven. Director Bill Condon lives up to the challenge of recapturing the magic of the '91 picture while putting his own spin on things. He and his writers stay true to the spirit of Linda Woolverton's original screenplay while further developing the story, the characters, and certain key relationships. They also update Belle in subtle but effective ways, ensuring she is pro-active and able to stand up for herself. This comes in handy when she is holding her ground against the Beast early on, and also in dealing with the casual sexism rampant in her community; when one villager sees her and a child enjoying a book together, he exclaims, "Teaching another girl to read! Isn't one enough?"

The well-known songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are all here and accounted for, each one a showstopper. The introductory "Belle," the bar-stomping "Gaston," the dining-room dazzler "Be Our Guest" led by candelabra Lumiére (Ewan McGregor), the romantic "Something There," the sweeping ballroom-set title number—all of them are spectacularly brought to life, seamlessly lensed by cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (2013's "Lone Survivor") and edited by Virginia Katz (2013's "The Fifth Estate") for optimum pulse-quickening effectiveness. There are a few new song as well, and while they call attention to themselves on first viewing because they aren't instantly recognizable like the ones surrounding them, they are well-used to fill out the narrative and flesh out the central characters. "How Does a Moment Last Forever," first sung by Maurice and later reprised by Belle, is too brief to reach the emotional heights it should, but "Days in the Sun" and especially the Beast solo "Evermore" are terrific, the latter culminating in a sensational shot capturing the Beast high in one of his towers as Belle rides horseback away from the estate.

The ensemble cast is impeccable. Emma Watson (2016's "Regression") makes Belle her own; there is no mimicking of Paige O'Hara, even when she is saying many of the same lines. Watson brings an understated yearning and sympathetic fortitude to the role, and her voice, while perhaps not being a Broadway-style powerhouse, is ideally suited for her specific reading of this heroine. Dan Stevens (2015's "The Cobbler") is excellent as the Beast; while much CG enhancement is used, the effects are so seamless it often feels like nothing more than an extensive make-up and prosthetics job. No matter, the actor appears to always be present behind his eyes, cutting a tragic figure both intimidating and eventually poignant. The romantic spark between these unlikely characters who start as barely even friends is palpable and unforced; they bond over shared interests rather than merely the requirement of the plot (both are voracious readers, for instance, and in a funny moment Belle's breath catches when she lays eyes on the Beast's immense library). By the end, their love strikes as genuine.

Supporting performances include a number of standouts. Kevin Kline (2015's "Ricki and the Flash") is warm and affectionate as Belle's father Maurice, heartbroken when he loses his daughter and no one will believe his seemingly wild claims of where she is. Luke Evans (2016's "The Girl on the Train") is a perfect Gaston, impervious to Belle's disinterest and blinded by his dashing looks and overblown ego. He is a terrific singer to boot. As Gaston's adoring sidekick-with-a-conscience Le Fou, Josh Gad (2015's "Pixels") is a comedic highlight, bringing far more to this part than anyone could have possibly expected. Whether he's taking to the bar tables to lead an energetic rendition of "Gaston," slyly suggesting the pent-up feelings he harbors for his friend, or cheering up his first mate by reminding him of happier times fighting in the war and being surrounded by widows, Gad is wonderful.

Bursting with innovation and wonder, "Beauty and the Beast" takes a time-honored fable and makes it feel fresh again. Lavish eye-candy that never wades into stuffiness, the film makes a case for how valuable a great story can be, as simple as that. Director Bill Condon is tremendously assured in juggling action, humor, thrills, and romance, and perhaps even better still at conceiving of musical numbers that are compelling, cohesive, evenly dispersed, and powerful yet not overblown. The production design by Sarah Greenwood (2011's "Hanna") is sumptuous and, at times, haunting, contributing to the foreboding spell of the Beast's lonesome castle and dark forests beyond the gates. The Beast's journey toward self-enlightenment rings true, both in the mistakes he made that led to the curse placed upon him and in his natural transformation to becoming a better person. As for Belle, she is an admirable young woman who holds onto her values and remains steadfastly herself even when she doesn't fit in with the short-sighted, unsophisticated views of her community. For someone who is passionate about art and literature, and who is adamant she is not ready to start a family, falling in love is far from the top of her to-do list. And yet fall she does, just as she was meant to. "Beauty and the Beast" is pure enchantment.
© 2017 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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