The classic 1991 Disney animated film “Beauty and the Beast” was a watershed moment for film, an acclaimed achievement that became the first feature-length animated movie to land a nomination for best picture.
The movie didn’t win that award (it went to “Silence of the Lambs”), but it did take home two statues for best original score and best original song for the iconic title track, and it got nominated in that same category for the songs “Belle” and “Be Our Guest.”
So, in other words, the bar is set quite high for Disney’s latest live-action adaptation of a classic animated film. And to quote the beloved song, “Ever just the same, ever a surprise.”
This tale as old as time makes a wonderful transition to live-action, with “Harry Potter” star Emma Watson taking the lead role as Belle and “Downton Abbey’s” Dan Stevens as the Beast, in a bodysuit and with his visage a CGI creation with an altered, beastly growl.
The familiar story has some changes from the animated film, none of which should set off any alarms. It begins in the opulent castle with an affluent prince and his fancy guests, dancing and partying. When he won’t help an elderly, sickly visitor, she curses him, turning him into the Beast and his guests into random household items.
Fast forward, and the free-spirited Belle and her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) are living in a small French town. Maurice sets out on a trip, and when the horse returns without him, Belle sets out to find him, happening upon an icy, mysterious castle where the dad is being imprisoned by the Beast.
Belle breaks in — meeting some of the living items, like Lumiere the candelabra (voiced by Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen). Maurice escapes and heads back to town to get help. While Belle is trapped in the castle, she and the Beast slowly fall for each other.
Meanwhile, the townsfolk, including Gaston (Luke Evans), a creepy Lothario with eyes on Belle, and his doting, and loving sidekick Le Fou (Josh Gad, playing the first openly gay Disney character), work to storm the castle, in a witch hunt for the Beast that looks all too familiar in our current political climate.
As directed by Bill Condon — no stranger to movie musicals, having written and directed “Dreamgirls” and written “Chicago” — builds a beautiful, immersive world, with lush forests, and a town that look seriously lived in. Beast’s castle is a marvel of bridges and towers.
But the big question here is — how is the music, the iconic songs that entranced generation after generation? The opener “Belle” is a fun tour of the town, showcasing Watson’s voice, which more than does the job. Evans, most famous for roles in “The Hobbit” and “Fast & Furious 6,” surprises with a very strong vocal performance.
“Be Our Guest” is a magical performance, with McGregor and Emma Thompson (as the teacup Mrs. Potts), and the showstopper title track is a magnificent, also from Thompson.
As Disney slowly turns all of its classic animated films into live-action remakes, “Beauty and the Beast” is another win, a majestic, big screen fantasy for the ages.