We made quite a pair at Monday’s press screening: Kathy the entertainment/pop-culture editor, a fierce “Beauty and the Beast” fan eagerly looking forward to director Bill Condon’s new cinematic version; and theater critic Donald, who has an admittedly soft spot for the 1991 movie but has seen so many stage productions in recent years he was ready to hurl if he heard one more Beast oversing “If I Can’t Love Her.” (Yes, we know this new movie version is based on the animated film, but you can’t escape the cultural impact of the oft-performed Broadway adaptation.)
While our views on movies often line up with movie critic colleague Rick, that didn’t happen this time around. (Rick calls the film mediocre and “a tale as cold as time.”) Ouch.
We, on the other hand, both ended up loving the new film. Here are 10 reasons why.
1. Belle is fierce and fearless.
She charges up the castle stairs, stick in hand, when she’s looking for her father, and woe be it to anyone (or any Beast) standing in her way. She’s no demure damsel in distress. She's a discontent, a rebel who challenges conventions, but she is also vulnerable, and feels the sting of being different and ostracized. She takes care of herself and her father – but she was also shaped and influenced by her past. We learn something more about her in this version. We love that something more.
2. Emma Watson dials down the perky.
Is Watson the bracingly cheery heroine, wide smile plastered on her face and a sweet-as-sugar lilt to her voice, that we’ve seen in past Disney versions? Hardly. Compared to past Belles, Watson is 100% certified giddy free, far more reserved and less effusive, and there’s an aura of melancholy that hangs, foglike, about her as the story unfolds. For the first time, we get a glimpse of a Belle who is truly bothered by the way the villagers treat her, and she doesn’t try to smother those feelings with sunny optimism. That pensiveness helps set the stage for far more believable romantic sparks with the Beast. They’re two outsiders drawn to each other.
3. The curse isn’t just about the Beast.
Yes, the Beast blows it big time when as a hedonistic prince he mistreats the Enchantress in the prologue. But it’s clear in this new movie version that her curse isn’t just directed at him and his staff but the surrounding countryside (read: society) as a whole. The castle’s household staff (which is turned into enchanted objects) was complicit in the prince’s upbringing. And the villagers appear to be vain and cold-hearted, too. When the Enchantress casts her spell, she’s punishing them as well. (In this regard, the Enchantress has a larger and more morally justifiable plan in mind than just doing a random spot-check on a stuck-up minor royal and arbitrarily messing up his life.) The villagers lose their ruler and their memories (and some even lose their spouses), and they wind up in thrall to an even more problematic character, Gaston.
4. Audra is wonderful.
Yes, we’re from Fresno, and so is McDonald, and there’s something in the water here that makes everyone adore Broadway’s most honored star, so we’re a little biased. But Audra’s turn as the enchanted wardrobe, aka Madame Garderobe, would be impressive even if she weren’t our hometown gal. Her voice is glorious, her “opera accent” funny and her time as an enchanted object visually exhilarating. (We love how the curtains on the little operatic stage found behind her cabinet doors actually form a mouth of sorts; it’s a giddy/creepy/riveting example of anthropomorphism taken to a new extreme.) And, ah, that high note she hits in the finale: just exquisite.
5. Belle’s dad gets a makeover.
Maurice is still a tinkerer and idealist, but gone is any sense of fumbling crackpot. Kevin Kline captures Maurice’s free spirit and eccentricity without turning him into a punchline. Belle’s father is presented more as master craftsman/artist than wacky inventor. He’s thoughtful, principled and a deep thinker, and he’s done everything to give his daughter a good life. We learn more in this version about what makes Maurice tick, and we love seeing him as a man of deep emotion and mourning, rather than as a goofball. His influence on his daughter is so much more pronounced, and that gives this version more depth.
6. The 3D is done right.
Can we just say, Holy End Credits, Batman! The use of 3D is wonderfully creative and key to making the castle come alive. It showcases the enchanted side of the story,and brings the viewer into the magic. “Be Our Guest” becomes a spectacular immersive experience, as if you’re watching a water ballet and get dragged into the pool. The film is, in a word, beautiful, and the 3D accentuates some of its gorgeous details, from the gold leaf in Belle’s bedroom that swirls onto a new home in the form of her famous yellow gown to the musical instruments depicted in bas-relief in the grand ballroom that come to life in the title song.
7. The storyline is expanded and tweaked in interesting ways.
This is no shot-for-shot remake. Purists might think such additions and changes clutter the plot, but we think they add spice and subtlety to the story:
- Belle’s backstory is beefed up in a big way: We learn where she comes from and more about her family dynamic, thanks to an intriguing new bit of magic revealed by the Beast. Belle also gets to show not only her smarts (she’s a big reader, yes, and wants to teach other girls to read, a nice bit of empowerment) but her own ingenuity (running her own version of a washing machine for all the town to see).
- We learn a little more about the lives of the enchanted objects, including a key new storyline for Mrs. Potts and son Chip. The whole castle seems much more alive in this new version, almost as if it’s a living and breathing entity. (Film buffs might see a nod to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live-action film in which doors opened by themselves.)
- Speaking of literary pursuits, the Beast isn’t nearly illiterate but quite well read and obviously very well-educated. This is a nice point of commonality between him and Belle. (You know what they say about couples with similar educational backgrounds ending up together.)
- Gaston in this version is less an egotistical buffoon and more a cruel authoritarian. In the previous two Disney versions, he’s just sort of dumb. This time he’s mean.
8. The new songs liven things up.
We’re big fans of “Evermore,” the new big song sung by the Beast in his lament. (It’s much better than the Beast’s overwrought first-act finale in the stage adaptation, “If I Can’t Love Her,” which probably has one lingering high note too many.) The sweet “Days in the Sun” is a good match for the movie’s nostalgic melancholy. The endearing “How Does a Moment Last Forever” adds texture to the new Paris plot thread. The singing in the movie is a decent blend of Hollywood character-actor-driven vocals (Stanley Tucci, Emma Thompson) and full-throated polish (Dan Stevens as the Beast, Audra). Does Watson have a Broadway-caliber voice as Belle? Nah. But she holds her own and competently matches pitch, and what she lacks in a killer vibrato she makes up for in a simmering emotional intensity. Added bonus: Celine Dion and John Legend/Ariana Grande offer some fine remakes for the end credits.
9. Belle and the Beast have great chemistry.
Dare we say animal chemistry? If you’re looking for an academic treatise on the primeval nature of human sexuality, it’s better if you go back to Cocteau’s ripe and surrealistic masterpiece, which can unleash some very interesting discussions about the reproductive experience. But this incarnation also lends itself to discussion. The Beast is a big, strong – need we say it? – bear of a male of the species. And, well, Belle seems attracted to the hirsute look. (She even makes a quick joke about it at the end of the film, which we don’t want to spoil, but you’ll know when you hear it.) For the first time in a version of “Beauty and the Beast,” we could buy the idea that Belle might really want to know and love the Beast – and, yes, we mean know in the Biblical sense. More than just physical attraction, however, this new movie offers evidence of a much tighter emotional bond between the two characters. That’s where the love story soars.
10. Ultimately, it’s more than a skin-deep story.
“Beauty and the Beast” has always been about focusing on inner beauty and how exterior appearance doesn’t ultimately matter. But in the animated film and stage version, this message struggles to rise above the superficial. This time around, it feels stronger. Perhaps it’s the Enchantress’ expanded effort to teach a moral lesson not just to one vain prince but society overall. Maybe it’s Belle’s no-nonsense attitude toward life, which suggests more tolerance on a range of subjects. Or simply because the first time she appears as a future princess she’s wearing a simple floral dress, not some extravagant gown. The new film delivers a strong message about being yourself, loving who you are and championing what is right, even when it goes against what is popular. We learn there are consequences to our actions, and not just from the Beast's point of view. That’s certainly something to sing about.