It seems strange to describe a fairy tale with a talking clock and candelabra as real, but there's an emotional authenticity in director Bill Condon's live-action Beauty and the Beast film that helps you rediscover Disney's beloved 1991 animated film and 1994 stage show in fresh, stirring ways.
The essence of the story is the same. An enchantress transforms a selfish prince into a Beast until he learns to love and be loved, and also turns all of his enabling staff into household objects that become less human over time. A young woman, Belle, saves her father by offering to take his place as the Beast's prisoner. Belle and the Beast despise, then begin to care for each other. The question is whether they'll fall in love before the rules of the spell render it too late for the Beast and the staff to become human again.
You get a similar colorful splendor in the period costumes and enchanted objects, which thanks to the wonders of CGI look more like actual, ornate moving objects than the cartoons of the first film and the stage versions. The big numbers from the animated film are there, including a deliciously over-the-top "Be Our Guest," plus new Alan Menken and Tim Rice songs added to the original Menken and Howard Ashman animated film score. But you get something else, too, in the tweaked script -- a smartly cast story that connects more emotional dots and slips in insights that prove shockingly contemporary.
At a time when women clamor for the right to be heard, Emma Watson's intelligent Belle conveys the powerful frustration of a woman threatened by provincial villagers for teaching a young girl to read. She stands up to the Beast when he tries to bully her. And she's strong and brave enough to reach out when others need help.
The most rewarding turn comes with the journey Dan Stevens takes with the Beast. The prince we see before the spell exudes arrogance. It makes sense that as the Beast, it's not his idea to move Belle from the cell to a bedroom. In this version, that idea comes from his staff (particularly the charming Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen as vaudevillian duo Lumiere and Cogsworth), having learned their lesson about the danger of being acquiescent.
The Beast is also no longer illiterate, but as he listens to Belle share about her favorite stories, he realizes he's missed the heart of what he's read. They bond as she teaches him kindness and empathy. In his thick, stiff Beast persona, done with motion-capture techniques, Stevens takes us through his internal transformation with his eyes -- eloquently.
Much has been made of the so-called "gay" moment for LeFou (Josh Gad), the sidekick to Gaston (Luke Evans), the handsome, chauvinistic villager who tries to pressure Belle into marrying him. There's a fleeting moment near the final scene in which LeFou briefly locks eyes with a man on a dance floor. It's lovely.
Like so many rich, added story details about Belle's father (Kevin Kline) and love and longing among the household staff, LeFou's questioning look offers a poignant reminder that gay characters have been left out of the Disney narrative for too long. This small token offers an opportunity to remember and honor a genius behind the cinematic scene, the openly gay Ashman, whose lyrics for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast helped bring these tales as old as time to unforgettable life.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (A-)
PG (for some action violence, peril and frightening images). 129 minutes. In wide release.