"BEAUTY AND THE BEAST" — 3½ stars — Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson; PG (action violence, peril and frightening images); in general release
The folks at Disney have been hard at work turning some of their most beloved animated classics into live-action productions in recent years. In 2015, Lily James stepped into the glass slippers in "Cinderella," and last year, Neel Sethi gave us a real-life Mowgli in "The Jungle Book."
But a trend that could suggest a dearth of original ideas has been offset by the attention and quality Disney has invested in these transformative productions. Such is also the case with "Beauty and the Beast," the latest animated film to get the 21st-century live-action treatment.
Director Bill Condon's "Beauty and the Beast" probably isn't going to make anyone forget the 1991 original, but that isn't really its mission. All your favorite characters are back on-screen, this time — aside from one hairy CGI exception — in the flesh.
Emma Watson plays Belle, the bookish beauty who gets trapped in a lonely castle with an even lonelier soul. Dan Stevens plays the Beast, a cursed prince who has until the final dropped petal of a red rose to find true love, or remain in his repulsive state. Luke Evans plays the machismo buffoon Gaston, the eligible bachelor determined to wed Belle, if only because she's the only girl in the village who doesn't faint at the sight of him.
Kevin Kline plays Belle's father Maurice, who more or less causes the whole trapped-in-the-castle mess, and Josh Gad plays LeFou, Gaston's loyal associate whose animated tomfoolery has been augmented with just enough played-for-laughs romantic affection to generate some pre-release controversy.
The plot should be familiar to anyone who has seen the original a time or two hundred, and even if you haven't, the film's title alone should be enough to get you up to speed. True to form, this "Beauty and the Beast" packs in a wealth of musical numbers from the original, plus a couple new tunes from the stage version.
But most viewers probably already knew all this going in. The real question is: Is this movie worth seeing? Yes, it is, with an emphasis on the word "seeing." For all the familiar faces and familiar songs and familiar twists and turns of the plot, "Beauty and the Beast" produces a dazzling visual spectacle, especially if viewers get the chance to see it on IMAX. Castles have never looked so ornate, and musical numbers have never been quite so lavish. The animated film was noted for its early use of CGI, and Condon's film is well-aware of its visual pedigree.
Watson looks every bit the part of Belle, hits all the right notes in her songs and adds the same knowing smirk she wore as Hermione Granger through eight Harry Potter movies.
Watson also gets a lot of help from her supporting cast, which includes big-name turns from Ewan McGregor (as the candlestick Lumiere), Ian McKellen (as the clock Cogsworth) and Emma Thompson (as teapot Mrs. Potts). Stevens' performance as the Beast is solid if shrouded in effects, and the veteran Kline is welcome as always.
"Beauty and the Beast" doesn't feel anywhere near its 129-minute run time (the original only clocked in at 86), but the story still feels a little thin. Though Condon and company have tried to toughen up the leading lady, "Beauty and the Beast" still has a traditional fairy tale feel, and the jump from prisoner to love interest feels pretty quick.
For those who are unhappy with the results, it will be easy to point the finger at corporate greed and return to your well-worn copies of the animated classic. But even if the new "Beauty and the Beast" doesn't manage to improve on the old one, it does offer a quality spectacle worth seeing.
"Beauty and the Beast" is rated PG for action violence, peril and frightening images; running time: 129 minutes.