Movie Review: Superfluous or not, “Beauty and the Beast” still works

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It’s unnecessary. The animated “Beauty and the Beast” that led to the stage musical and now a (more or less) live action adaptation is a cultural touchstone, the pinnacle of the animated musical art and a work which “live action version” cannot improve upon.

Putting that slip of a thing Emma Watson in the lead, with her thin voice to match, and then surrounding her with similar strangers-to-musicals (save for the great Audra McDonald) isn’t really an improvement, either. Nobody’s lining up to hear Luke Evans, Ewan McGregor, Oscar winners Emma Thompson and Kevin Kline perform show tunes, and with good reason.

But “Beauty” still has those unforgettable Alan Menken/Howard Ashman (and Tim Rice) songs, deft mini-masterpieces of the art form. They’re malleable enough to endure any number of stage revivals of the show that owned Broadway for years and in many ways rescued the American musical. And damned if that third act waltz of this “tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme” doesn’t get me, every time.

Watson’s version of Belle is as bookish and plucky as ever, more a “future is female” icon. She’s still rejected by her “provincial” French village.

“Teaching another girl to read. As if ONE isn’t enough!”

Dad’s still a dotty tinkerer, played her by the great Kevin Kline, who has no real moment to shine.

And the boorish soldier Gaston (Luke Evans) still sets his cap for her and only her. His soldiering sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) still crushes on Gaston, a bit more obviously this time around (amusingly). If you know the show (And really, how can you have avoided it?), the one number that is improved on from the animated original is “Gaston,” which borrows from both animated and stage versions to create a raucous romp through the town tavern, with Gad crooning and Evans vamping his various manly attributes.

“In a spitting match nobody spits like Gaston…I’m especially good at EXPECT-orating!”

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Evans doesn’t have the plummy/hammy voice that made Richard White’s burly animated version so over-the-top back in 1991, but he and Gad pull it off.

Belle’s “crazy” father Maurice gets trapped by the Beast, she rides to his rescue and sacrifices herself as prisoner in his place. And the Beast, cursed and condemned to a crumbling castle where he is hairy and hideous and his staff has been transformed into furniture and cookware, can only be saved if he and that staff can convince the once-vain prince to love him.

They added songs, bits of back-story. The Beast sings a song of longing. The “curse” scene is made more vivid, the prince is seen as an unhappy child, and we learn the fate of Belle’s mother.

They made the film longer, and “announced” there was a gay character — as if we’d missed it the first or second time. And for all the “live action version” hype, it’s a strikingly digital enterprise, with animated sets and set-piece fights and digital wolves to go with the digital title character. No. Not “Beauty.”

The filmmakers tried to top “Be Our Guest,” and don’t.

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But Watson is a wonderfully affecting actress, and Stevens, the bland pretty boy beau of “Downton Abbey,” is unrecognizable under all that animation. The same goes for everybody else transformed from actor into animated “thing.” Stanley Tucci, the singing McDonald and Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) you may recognize. Ewan “Lumiere” McGregor? Not at all.

It still all comes back to those wonderful tunes, songs that tell the story of a smart girl being trapped in “this provincial life,” of Gaston’s ego, a service staff with no one to serve and a love story where two people have to learn to look “beneath the surface” to find true beauty and true love.

This “Beast” will never replace the original, but that’s not really the idea. It’s a nostalgia trip for a generation that grew up on the animated film, a reminder that for a fairy-tale, it’s packed with adult themes and lessons to live by.

I can’t say I loved it, as it drags and drags and only occasionally springs to life. But this “tale as old as time” resonates as well as it ever has, and its songs still stick with you long after the closing credits.

2half-star6
MPAA Rating:PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images

Cast: Emma Watson, Luke Evans, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, Audra McDonald, Josh Gad, Stanley Tucci

Credits:Directed by Bill Condon, script by Stephen Chbosky (screenplay), Evan Spiliotopoulos. A Walt Disney release.

Running time: 2:09

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