‘Beauty and the Beast’ A Live-Action Visual Feast ✭✭✭

There’s plenty here in the live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” for everyone: fans of the 1991 musical animated feature “Beauty and the Beast” will be please, fans of the popular but now ended PBS series “Downton Abbey” can have Matthew Crawley again as the princely heir apparent/hero and fans of the Harry Potter movie series will be delighted to see Hermione Granger as the heroine who gets the prince. At the preview screening I attended, there were girls in princess dresses and when the credits rolled a loud applause broke out.

Bill Condon directs this Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos script as a celebration of the original animated feature that does justice to old favorites with new recordings of the original songs written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and adds three new songs by Menken and Tim Rice.

In the beginning, we see a pair of beautiful blue eyes being made up with as much makeup as a wild fantasy creature from a Cirque du Soleil production. The surprise (spoiler alert) is this isn’t a wicked queen, but an arrogant and spoiled young man (Dan Stevens) on his way to host a party. The young prince is definitely the peacock of the ball, with most of the attendees dressed in ecru off-white. Take time to admire those shoes which will soon be doffed for some high tech gadgets covered by clever costuming and CGI when Stevens makes his transformation into the Beast.

If Downton Abbey was about maintaining manners, then so too is “Beauty and the Beast.” When an old hag asks for refuge from a storm and offers him a perfect red rose in return, he refuses. He can’t be bothered and her visage (and possibly smell) bother him. Do you think Lord Grantham, Robert Crawley, would have been so rude? The woman is an enchantress who curses the prince, turning him into a beast. His enablers–the grand bouteiller Lumiére (Ewan McGregor), his sweetheart Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw ), court composer Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), the grand maitre Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), the head of the kitchen Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and her son Chip (Nathan Mack) and the maestro’s wife, opera singer Madame de Garderobe (Audra McDonald) are also transformed, but into furnishings. Lumiére becomes a candelabra; Cogsworth, a clock; maestro, a harpsichord; Potts a teapot and Chip, a chipped tea cup, and etc.

The enchantress gifts the Beast with the red rose, warning that if the beast cannot find a woman to love him before the last petal drops, he will be forever a beast and his companions/enablers will no longer be able to talk but become normal inanimate objects.

Years later, not far away in the small town Villeneuve, young woman, Belle (Emma Watson), who, unlike most of the girls of her time, can read is the object of much speculation. Books are so precious and she has access to so few, she often settles for re-reading them. Belle is courted by the vain bully Gaston (Luke Evans) whose flamboyant sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) seems a bit too invested in this bromance.

Belle’s father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), a maker of exquisite toys, encourages her to be different and has no love for Gaston. Good manners and even direct refusals are lost on the lout. Without a war, Gaston needs a challenge, a hunt for a hard to acquire prey. That doesn’t mean he’s brave.

One day, Maurice leaves for a journey in a wagon drawn by a grey horse named Felipe. He asked Belle what she wants as a souvenir. As always, she asked for a rose. Yet things quickly go wrong. In the forest, lightening strikes and a tree blocks the path. Wolves threaten Maurice. He unhitches Felipe and attempts to escape on horseback into the Beast’s realm which has been cursed with eternal winter. That should have been warning enough, but Maurice proceeds and enters the castle–a dark grotesquery of baroque gone wild.

As every young child knows since Goldilocks, one should never sit down to a meal at a strange abode without the hosts present.  The door opens. He hears voices, but only sees household objects. There’s a fire and a lovely meal set out, but no one around. He sits down, then noting that there’s something amiss in the castle, Maurice flees. After wolves and a magical castle, you’d think he’s be a bit wiser, but Maurice stops in the castle garden to steal a rose.

That minor theft ends with him being thrown in the slammer or rather in one of the castle towers. Felipe returns to Belle and leads her to the castle where in an act of daughterly love, she takes her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner. Distraught, Maurice returns to the village but only Gaston believes his tale about the Beast or at least, pretends to believe Maurice. Gaston hopes his support will facilitate his marriage to Belle.

Back at the castle, the servants facilitate the romance between the angry Beast and the scared but brave Belle. It seems that no one schooled the young prince in the manners of the court. That’s explained away by bad parenting and an indulgent courtiers and servants. It’s not like you’d see the Red Queen angrily crying “Off with his head” in a Disney film. Oh, wait, we did and this is set in France, home of the guillotine. “Beauty and the Beast” is set in a land where royals didn’t divorce by way of beheading and before the disposal of the king, queen and others required decapitation. This is an alternative universe for Disney princesses.

During an escape attempt, the beast saves Belle, but gravely injured from the wolves. During the tussle, the Beast has been badly bitten. Belle helps him return to the castle and stays to help him recover. In return, he gives her something she only dreamed of: access to a library filled with high walls of books. Dream of tall castle walls fortified by leather covered books? So do I. Book lovers everywhere will get a misty-eyed here.

Maurice does get Gaston and LeFou to follow him back into the woods, but gets confused to which way he rode from the lightening struck tree. Gaston has no patience for the befuddled Maurice and leaves him tied to a tree to be eaten by wolves. Maurice is saved by an old woman, Agathe (Mattie Morahan), who has no fear of the wolves (hint) and then nurses him back to health.  When Maurice finally returns to the village with Agathe, he accuses Gaston of attempted murder. With only a poor woman as his witness, Maurice is overruled by Gaston because LeFou lies to support Gaston. Maurice is put in a paddy wagon but before he can be sent away to a mental institution, Belle arrives. Belle unwittingly reveals that the Beast is real and Gaston inflames the people to storm the castle to kill the beast. Belle and her father are locked in the paddy wagon.

As this is a Disney film, you know that the Beast will fight with Gaston and the Beast will win. Belle and the Beast will find love and that love will save the Beast.

This might be a “tale as old as time,” but it is the new computer generated technology that makes this better than the original. The animation of the enchanted objects and the detail in the over-the-top baroque castle–exterior and interior–make this movie a visual treasure.  The 1991 animated feature was the first animated feature to receive an Oscar nomination for best picture and won two Oscars (best original score and best song), three Golden Globes and four Grammy awards.

This movie offers more background and motivation for Belle and the Beast and adds new characters. This update of the Disney classic is an enchanting addition to the Disney Princess canon.

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