How many times can you retell a "tale as old as time"? Disney's 1991 Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film ever to receive an Academy Awards Best Picture nomination; transformed into musical theater, it became one of Broadway's longest-running shows. Now comes this live-action remake — or partially live-action, if one considers that, as in most fantasy blockbusters these days, a sizable portion of the characters and settings is digitally animated.
Little that is actually new about this lavish production directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) rises to the level of the beloved original. Yet it's impossible to go far wrong with the fairy-tale-derived plot and compulsively hummable songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and the result is still pretty magical.
Having attained archetypal "brainy girl" status as Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, Emma Watson is an easy choice to play Belle, Disney's most bookish heroine. This version doubles down on Belle's pluck and initiative, making her an inventor like her father (Kevin Kline) and even giving her a backstory involving a proto-feminist mom. The promise of stability in a marriage to vain village muscle-head Gaston (Luke Evans) doesn't remotely tempt her.
So, when Belle volunteers to take her dad's place as a prisoner of the mysterious Beast (Dan Stevens), the resulting romance feels less creepy than it might have with a weaker heroine. Indeed, as Beauty and her captor bond over books, things become downright Jane Austen-esque.
The film drags in these romantic, castle-bound sections — which involve new childhood flashbacks for the Beast as well as Belle, and new songs by Menken and Tim Rice. The real energy of the production lies in its operetta-like ensemble numbers, fueled by the deliciously clever and cheeky lyrics of Ashman, who died before the original film's release.
Though the stars of this version weren't chosen for their singing prowess, "Belle," "Gaston" and "Be Our Guest" remain exhilarating tours de force. The second number, presided over by Josh Gad as Gaston's henchman/cheerleader LeFou, benefits from the decision to turn his obvious crush on his idol from subtext into text. The third number goes surreal with an animated swirl of Busby Berkeley-style chorus action.
The Beast's castle is a pleasantly rococo creation. But when it comes to the enchanted creatures within, the jury is still out on whether it works to replace highly stylized hand-drawn characters with computer graphics in a live-action context. The servants now look more like inanimate objects, the Beast more human, a tendency that enhances the romance at the expense of the comic and sentimental subplots involving Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) and the rest.
The new screenplay, by Stephen Chbosky (author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos, makes vague gestures toward giving the story "mythology," like a fantasy franchise. Despite those efforts, Beauty and the Beast remains at its heart the age-old exemplary tale of a woman deciding she's going to "change" a man — and succeeding. Regardless of whether that's a smart message to send to young girls, at least this version of the story gives Belle career fallbacks: She's a teacher, too, promoting literacy among the benighted villagers.
This pastel musical concoction isn't a believable version of 18th-century France, but when was Beauty and the Beast ever? Condon's version certainly won't replace the animated film. But it provides just enough sappiness and sass to please a broad audience with fond memories of the "song as old as rhyme" — and, no doubt, to enchant a new generation.