Three films into Disney’s cycle of early-year event movies fashioned from the company’s own animations, and what have we learnt? Firstly, that those Cassandras who warned pop culture will eat itself almost certainly had a point. Secondly, that the Mouse House is making a pretty spectacular fist of the job. The live-action Beauty and the Beast is at once more lavish, charming and assured than its predecessors; Disney’s commercial winning streak (the Avengers series, New Star Wars, Zootropolis, Moana) has become such that the company could now probably make do-overs of noted flops John Carter and The Lone Ranger play to some kind of audience.
New Beauty is far more confident about existing as a fully-fledged musical than was NewJungle Book, which approached its songs in vaguely embarrassed fashion. Perhaps those vintage standards were thought to sit uneasily in the mouths of photorealistic CG animals; here, a few notes of “Be Our Guest” should be enough to make anybody feel at home. From the overture situating our new Belle (Emma Watson) amid her bustling French village, Dreamgirls director Bill Condon gives events an ease and sweep, making everybody on screen and onlooking feel comfortable around the idea of living, breathing human beings bursting into song. There are odder forces at play in this universe.
Indeed, it’s refreshing to encounter a major studio release so content to trade in suggestive weirdness: the stallions and flower plucking that drew the Surrealist Jean Cocteau to the source remain very much present and correct. This being New Disney, the openness equally extends to colourblind casting and PG-rated feminism, with Belle resisting a grabbier Gaston (Luke Evans, striding everywhere chin first). It also enables the cheeky decision to play Gaston’s sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) as campily smitten – winking pantomime, in line with The Simpsons’ Burns-Smithers business, but apparently potent enough to have put the wind up our none-more-macho Russian chums.
It’s typical, however, of the performers’ willingness to enter into the spirit of the piece; if any cynicism existed behind the scenes about this corporate rebrand, none was allowed to travel before the camera. Dan Stevens’ Beast proves a furrily expressive bundle of recognisable masculine impulses; Watson, schooled in distinguishing herself from heavyweight production design, makes a forthright, questing Belle. The vocal cast, too, has been compiled with a more reliable ear than The Jungle Book’s A-list grab bag: auditoriums everywhere will likely resound with oohs and aahs as the supporting ensemble of inanimate objects are magicked into cherished thesps.
Your preference may ultimately be generational: I’ll forever treasure the animation, where the effects were far less in-your-face special, and thus far less geared towards easy trailering. 25 years older myself, I couldn’t help but note that this is another Disney movie that spends its entire second half making nice what the first made wondrous strange. There’s no real risk here – every beat has been tried, tested and carefully repackaged – but this version still delivers what a multiplex audience in Spring 2017 might desire from a live-action Beauty and the Beast: agreeable entertainment, and – in its closing consideration of the mutability of things – flickers of something more stirring besides.
Beauty and the Beast opens in cinemas nationwide today.