The tale of a scary-looking dude who holds a girl hostage until she submits to him is usually the stuff of police reports. Or, of course, a Disney musical. Such is the case with Beauty and the Beast, director Bill Condon’s live–action version of the 1991 classic and the first animated feature to win an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Condon (Dreamgirls) knows how to lift heavy machinery without showing the sweat. And Emma Watson is just the Disney princess-in-distress to warm the heart of a hairy ape, or bison, or whatever kind of beast the stellar Dan Stevens is playing. Working from a busy script by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, the director fills every frame of this way-too-long 129-minute bauble with rapid motion and ravishing romance. It looks the same, moves the same and sounds the same (those Alan Menken songs!) as the original. But some of the magic has gone M.I.A.
It’s still a tale as old as time. A spoiled prince (Stevens, allowed for a minute to show his Downton Abbey handsomeness) gets zapped into a beast for being an arrogant prick; his curse can only be lifted if the egomaniac learns to love and be loved in return. Enter Belle (Watson, the perfect embodiment of the little engine that could), a scrappy bookworn/inventor who voluntarily enters the prince’s lair in return for his freeing her artist daddy (the ever-splendid Kevin Kline) who wandered in there by mistake. Belle is almost relieved to be locked up with a monster, since she previously spent her days escaping the randy attentions of Gaston (Luke Evans, a preening delight), a Bachelor wannabe whose sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad), is, yes, gay. This fact has earned the film cinema non grata status in some countries and rural American counties; it’s so coded that it’s barely detectable.
The bigger twist is that the Beast is – no, not also gay – but as hot a book lover as Belle. Literacy gets a booming shoutout in this new Beauty. For our heroine, her captor’s thing for Shakespeare is a frisky turn-on. It takes her a little longer to get used to life in the palace, what with the singing and dancing furniture – inanimate objects have a habit of doing that in Disney movies. Thanks to computer wizardry, Ewan McGregor sings and swans around as candlestick, Ian McKellan as a clock, Audra McDonald as a wardrobe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a feather-duster, Stanley Tucci as a piano, and Emma Thompson as a teapot (she sings the title song Angela Lansbury warbled for the ages in the original). Despite all the energy they expend in their frenzied Busby Berkeley-inspired rendition of “Be Our Guest,” the animated version far exceeds it in a quality even a $160 million budget can’t buy: charm.
What Beauty and the Beast rises or falls on is the love story, and here, allowed to slow down to let in intimate moments, the movie catches fire. Hobbled by a motion capture process that forced him to walk on stilts and wear a huge muscle suit covered in Lycra, Stevens goes beyond the call of family-musical duty to give us a flawed human being instead of a special effect; his is a Beast worth saving. Those are his eyes gazing down with passion at Watson’s Beauty, his voice choked with genuine ardor. And suddenly, in a movie built on the bones of what preceded it, there is something there that wasn’t there before. I’d call that an exhilarating gift.