Belle is a funny girl. When she walks through her village of Villeneuve, singing about leaving “this provincial life” behind, there’s a moment where the entire village stops and stares at her. In Bill Condon’s live-action adaptation of Disney’s beloved Beauty And The Beast, Emma Watson plays a more knowing, grim version of Belle than has been seen before.
Earlier iterations of Belle had seemed sorrowful that her fellow villagers don’t share her passion for reading; Watson’s Belle, however, can barely conceal her contempt, especially when she has to convey to the vain Gaston (Luke Evans), a soldier who seeks her as his trophy wife, that he is wasting his time.
Fans of the 1991 classic, which was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, may find this film’s existence a little pointless, but I wouldn’t say it doesn’t have its merits. This tale is also about Belle falling in love with her captor The Beast (Dan Stevens), a bipedal ‘monster’ with a horned head and a surprisingly expressive face that vaguely resembles Andy Serkis’ Caesar from the rebooted Planet Of The Apes franchise. No, this has nothing to do with bestiality — The Beast is a handsome prince who has been cursed for haughtily refusing to provide shelter to an enchantress disguised as an old beggar (Hattie Morahan).
The message is clear: never judge another based on appearances. But the punishment barely seems to fit the crime. His castle is shrouded in eternal winter, surrounded by a forest with bloodthirsty wolves, and is inhabited by people, which includes many former Villeneuve residents, who have been transformed into inanimate objects. There’s the quarrelling duo of the flirtatious candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor, in what one hopes is a deliberately exaggerated French accent) and the frumpy Cogsworth (Ian McKellen, who could surely have been given funnier lines).
There’s the matronly Mrs Potts (a wonderful Emma Thompson), a talking teapot, and her little boy Chip (Nathan Mack), a chipped tea-cup. Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a feather duster and Lumiere’s lover, is distinctly less coquettish than I remember in previous versions. And I could’ve done with more of Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), a talking harpsichord, whose keys come quite in handy during a climactic battle sequence.
Since we’re in 2017, there’s a fair bit of representational politics that is visible in this film. This includes a token black character in an otherwise overwhelmingly Caucasian village and the wise-cracking LeFou (an enjoyable Josh Gad — think Jack Black from a decade ago), Gaston’s sniveling sidekick, who is constantly on the verge of coming out of the closet.
Those questioning the need to make all these changes may also, then, question why a French fairy-tale features men and women speaking in sundry British and American accents. The point I’m trying to make is that if you’re taking creative liberties anyway, why is it a problem if makers try to be more inclusive in their characterisation?
That said, Beauty And The Beast works better as a visual feast than a parable championing the virtues of open-mindedness. All the stops are pulled out in musical numbers such as ‘Be Our Guest...’, which references many past Disney productions and benefits from dizzying camera movements that add more energy to its choreography. Watson, undeniably the star of the show, is good without being excellent — there is a flatness to her performance that comes across as alienating. Kevin Kline, as her father Maurice, is more effective, even though his character’s eccentricity has been toned down — he, too, is more melancholic and world-weary than in previous versions. Perhaps that’s Condon trying to make a statement and say, “They aren’t the weird ones. Everyone else is.”
(The author is a film critic and culture journalist who resides in Mumbai. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at a leading website and has written for a number of publications. In his spare time, he makes music. When free from all of the above, he travels.)