Beauty and the Beast Is Wonderfully Out of Step With the Times

4 minute read

The key to Bill Condon’s wondrous live-action musical Beauty and the Beast is that it’s not a movie of its time. It’s not even a movie of 1991, the year Disney released the animated film that provides its framework. In its go-for-broke exuberance and wedding-cake lavishness, this new Beauty most resembles the musicals of the mid- to late-1960s, like Carol Reed’s Oliver! and a new version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein made-for-TV Cinderella. Those projects came to life as the era of the great movie musical was waning, and they were worlds apart from era-defining pictures like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. They were marvelous not in spite of the fact that they were out of step with the times, but because of it.

This Beauty and the Beast is out of step, beautifully, in the same way. There’s no need to worry that this version might crush the gentle charms of the 1991 picture, though. Condon more or less faithfully follows that movie’s plot, and yet this Beauty is its own resplendent creature. Emma Watson stars as Belle, a bookish loner who longs to escape small-town France but who instead becomes a prisoner of the cursed neighborhood beastie. Beneath shaggy, olive-brown fur and a set of spiraling, sinister horns, the Beast is played by English actor Dan Stevens. Kevin Kline is Belle’s father Maurice, an artist, a tinkerer and a man who will always be in love with his late wife, Belle’s mother. Kline brings warmth and style to the role. And Luke Evans is the swaggering braggart Gaston, a brute who will have Belle at any cost. Evans’ performance is oversize, like his shoulders, but comes with a wink.

The original songs, by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, remain, though the arrangements are now more like lush floral bouquets, laced with grand orchestral curlicues. (The film also features three new numbers by Menken and lyricist Tim Rice.) In fact, nearly everything about this Beauty is larger than life and loaded with feeling, like a brash interpretive dance expressing the passion and elation little girls (and some boys) must have felt upon seeing the earlier version. The production design is elaborate and trippy: the dark, sad part of the Beast’s castle is a Goth-Rococo reverie, a moody interior landscape of undulating carvings of stags and hunting dogs, serpents and gargoyles. The guest room that becomes Belle’s–presided over by a singing armoire, whose soaring voice belongs to Audra McDonald–has been lifted straight from a Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting, a dream boudoir rendered in blue, gold and cream.

You could accuse Beauty and the Beast of being a little too generous in doling out sensory overload. But then, it did spring from a movie that featured a motherly singing teapot, a Maurice Chevalier–esque candelabra and a persnickety clock who does everything by the rules. (Here, they’re voiced by Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen.) The grand musical number “Be Our Guest,” in which all these characters–plus plates, silverware and more–bounce and jump and sing in majestically syncopated madness, is probably too much. But how about those napkins, undulating and writhing in the air like enthusiastic Martha Graham understudies? Somebody dreamed that up. The human mind is a miracle.

The human heart is too, and Beauty and the Beast doesn’t fail us on that score. It’s explicit about the unpredictability of love, the way it sneaks up on us unbidden. When Belle’s Beast looks at her with anguished eyes, he speaks a wordless truth about this most adult of all romantic fairy tales.

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