Uncurling from a position of absolute fatigue on the subject of live-action remakes of animated classics, I approached the new Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson as Belle and Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens as the Beast, with perhaps more skepticism than befits an objective alt-weekly movie critic.
But look: I've suffered the indignities of Alice in Wonderland and its garish sequel. I sat through Maleficent. I watched Cinderella (and was charmed by it, at times) but nearly ate my hat in the absence of "Bippity Boppity Boo." I'd rather not dwell on The Jungle Book, other than to say that a CGI-animated remake of a hand-drawn animated film seemed especially redundant. I'll admit to being curious about the forthcoming Mulan. As we speak, Disney casting scouts are rumored to be excavating every last peasant hut from the slums of Shanghai to the mountains of Tibet in search of a lead. Not so much about The Lion King which, despite having cast Donald Glover as the voice of Simba, won't be able to escape its essential uselessness.
It's impossible for me to view these remakes as anything other than cash grabs by Disney™, a global brand that these days seems much less concerned with the magic of movies than it is with the magic of merchandising. I mean, what possible function could a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast — the paragon of animated storytelling in modern American moviemaking! The first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture! — serve?
That turns out to be complicated.
Unlike Maleficent, or even Snow White and the Huntsman, both of which weren't exactly remakes —they gave top billing to characters that hadn't been fully explored in their source material — and both of which were adapted from films made a very long time ago (1959 and 1938), Beauty and the Beast is more or less a carbon copy of the animated film released in 1991. And indeed, this borderline shot-for-shot faithfulness was supposed to be part of the appeal. (Take a look at the trailer.)
Disney was wise to intuit that they couldn't take "Be Our Guest" out of Beauty and the Beast. They couldn't cut "Bonjour." They certainly couldn't skip "Beauty and the Beast" itself. And they couldn't dress Belle, as she descends the grand staircase in the Beast's castle while a violin first articulates Alan Menken's iconic melody, in anything other than a golden gown. There would be riots in the streets!
As such, the task set before this remake struck me as uniquely challenging: It must honor a relatively recent original by recreating it — that is, by representing animated characters and sequences in live action as closely as possible — while also being distinct. Because otherwise, why bother?
Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2), has modernized the original in ways that should be familiar to people who see a lot of community theater. In fact, the opening 15 minutes view like one of those [Name of Musical] Live! productions on Fox and NBC. The bucolic 18th-century French village is peopled by blacks and gays. The costumes are costumes, not real clothes. The town square looks an awful lot like a sound stage. This is no doubt intentional. We're already in a fairytale world. There's no need for the gritty naturalism and handheld camerawork that marked, for instance, Tom Hooper's Les Miserables. Belle's father Maurice (Kevin Kline) is here a fine artist, not a wacky inventor. Both Belle and Beast are given richer backstories. Dan Stevens plays up the Beast's stuffy, princely elements in his interpretation. LeFou (Josh Gad) is the movie's most 3-D character. He nurses affections for Gaston (a pitch-perfect Luke Evans) in private. Ewan McGregor as Lumiere and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts = the work of a savvy casting director.
But the savviest casting choice of all may have been Emma Watson as Belle. She is by no means a powerhouse vocalist. She is not even what you'd call a "really good actor." One of her finest moments is during "Be Our Guest," sitting at the head of a table, chuckling sweetly at the dancing plates. No, she was perfect for external reasons, or maybe just one. That is, she is Hermione Granger. And for viewers of a certain age (those who were very young when Beauty and the Beast came out), seeing a woman who portrayed the girl more central to our childhoods than literally any other girl now portray a character from an even earlier moment in our childhoods ought to be deeply, deeply stirring. It was for me. I loved watching her up there.
More generally, there's something about a remake of a classic that is — I hate to acknowledge the success of Disney's strategy — exciting. Before every musical number, you inch forward in your seat and wonder: How are they gonna pull this off? We all revere the past, sometimes too much, and we can't help preferring originals. And for the record, this remake is nowhere near as good as the miracle from '91: Its magic isn't organic; it's derived from the original. But it is nonetheless a fair and sometimes stunning homage.