“Who could ever learn to love a beast?”
Although it’s not quite a tale as old as time, people around the world have been enchanted by the story of “Beauty and the Beast” for centuries. The French fairytale was first published in 1740 and has subsequently spawned everything from a classic 1946 big-screen romance to Ron Perlman. Still, the most popular iteration of this story is Disney’s beloved 1991 animated musical, which helped solidify the Mouse House’s cartoon revival and serves as the most direct inspiration for this dazzling live-action adaptation. Then again, the fact that this new version is essentially a pretty close copy of a copy takes some of the bloom off this particular rose.
I just spent a whole paragraph talking about how everyone knows and/or loves “Beauty and the Beast”, so I’ll try to keep this synopsis short. Belle (Emma Watson) is a beautiful and kind-hearted bookworm who lives with her eccentric inventor father Maurice (Kevin Kline) and repeatedly has to fend off unwanted advances from egotistical hunk Gaston (Luke Evans). During a trip to sell some of his music boxes, Maurice loses his way and is attacked by a pack of wolves, forcing him to seek shelter in a mysterious castle. Unbeknownst to him, the castle is occupied by a ferocious Beast (Dan Stevens) and his enchanted servants, which include a candelabra named Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), a mantel clock called Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), and a teapot named, um, Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson).
This version of Beauty and the Beast clocks in at 130 minutes, which is about 20 minutes longer than its cartoon inspiration. (Which became the first animated film to earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination.) The new film opens with a quick, effective prologue that introduces us to The Beast when he was still a vain prince and depicts the events that caused him and the castle’s inhabitants to be cursed. Other than that, I found that the new additions were either underwhelming (what’s the point of creating a new character for the great Stanley Tucci — a harpsichord named Cadenza — if you’re not going to give him a single thing to do?) or slowed the story’s momentum (the repeated allusions and flashbacks to Belle’s late mother).
Director Bill Condon already has a movie musical (Dreamgirls) under his belt and a couple of the numbers do stand out here. I like the way that “Gaston” has been blown out into a foot-stomping spectacle — Josh Gad was born to play LeFou, Gaston’s suck-up sidekick (more on him later) — and “Be Our Guest” leans hard into the Esther Williams musical aesthetic. The movie also incorporates songs from the Broadway version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Condon brings a majestic, painterly touch to Beauty and the Beast. It’s most clearly there whenever the movie ventures inside the Beast’s grand castle, but it’s also apparent during the musical introduction of “Belle.”
“Beauty is found within.”
While the production values here are unassailably top-shelf, the slickness of some of the visual effects might occasionally pull you out of the story in a way hand-drawn animation does not. Disney has hit the jackpot in recent years with these live-action remakes of its own cartoon classics. But Cinderella leaned more heavily on bold costumes and real-life locations than CGI, while The Jungle Book went all-in on its CGI setting and animal cast out of necessity. For all its dazzle, Beauty and the Beast often hovers somewhere in between.
Fortunately, the charming, all-star cast helps the viewer stay connected. Watson became a star playing the brave and brainy Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, so casting her as Disney’s most famous book nerd makes perfect sense. She makes for a strong heroine, even if her thin, over-produced singing voice leaves something to be desired. It’s hard to say how much of Stevens is in his performance as Beast (which is a blend of CGI and motion-capture puppeteering), but I like that this character was somewhat beefed up: not only does Beast have to soften and overcome his vanity to be worthy of Belle’s love, but he has to learn how to genuinely love others himself. Among the wildly overqualified supporting players, McGregor’s amorous Lumiere and McKellen’s fussy Cogsworth make for a solid comedy team. Thompson, however, was oddly underutilized considering that Mrs. Potts is such a key, maternal presence for Belle.
I was delighted to see Kline get a decent amount of screen time as Belle’s dad, whose role is considerably beefed up compared to the cartoon. Evans has an absolute blast playing the pompous Gaston, who starts off as a well-meaning doofus before revealing his (inner) ugly side. You’re probably aware of the furor over Disney revealing that this version of Beauty and the Beast would include its first openly gay character, which has caused the film’s release to be postponed in Malaysia. If you haven’t heard about this…then ignore the previous sentence because it’s much ado about nothing. Yes, LeFou is a bit more outward with his affection for Gaston (instead of a “man crush” it’s more of a “crush crush”), but the “gay content” here isn’t any more overt than anything kids have already seen in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Beauty and the Beast is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 27 mbps. When I watched the movie in theaters, it was in 3D and I was a bit underwhelmed by the inherently dark pall the extra dimension cast on much of the movie. The first thing you’ll notice is the outrageously fine detail on everything from the costumes to the set design. The “Belle” number near the start of the film, however, is the first indication that this is a brighter and more vibrant presentation than its 3D big-screen counterpart. That being said, colors (especially the red of Gaston’s costumes) pop while remaining believably earthbound and organic. Black levels — both inside the Beast’s castle and during Maurice’s scary jaunt in the dark forest — are foreboding while offering tremendous separation. Although comparing the theatrical 3D experience to this 2D Blu-ray is somewhat of an apples-to-oranges proposition, I was still blown away by this dazzling Disney release.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track is (sorry, but there’s no way I could resist) a beast. The seven-channel presentation provides the appropriate extra heft to what is a massive production in every way. Alan Menken’s compositions match the spectacle on screen note for note, and the track allow us to appreciate the intricacies of the music. The Beast’s castle feels especially lively, even with something as simple as footsteps originating in the front speakers and echoing throughout the rears to emulate the way they reverberate throughout the hallways. And any time a member of the enchanted wait staff makes a move off-screen we hear it in a side or rear speaker before we see it. Subs are pitched to perfection, whether we’re getting the rumble from the thunderstorm that puts Maurice in peril or the Beast’s fearsome roar. Just like the visual presentation, this track offers a reference-quality experience.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD. When you select “Play Movie,” you will have the option of viewing the Theatrical Cut of the film, a version that includes an Overture, or you can watch in Sing-A-Long mode.
Enchanted Table Read: (13:31) Naturally, Disney couldn’t simply have a bunch of actors sitting around an oversized table with their noses buried in scripts for its Beauty and the Beast table read. (Although, based on the brief snippet we get here, I’d absolutely watch an hour of Ian McKellen reading from a script.) This is a production unlike anything I’ve seen before, including full musical numbers with singing and dancing to live music. The only (understandable) disappointment is that we only got highlights of this one-of-a-kind table read rather than the full thing.
A Beauty of a Tale: (27:08) A more conventional — yet still very effective and informative — Making Of featurette. I especially enjoyed seeing clips of the animated film juxtaposed with their live-action counterparts. Cast and crew talk about the enormous pressure of honoring the beloved 2-D cartoon while also creating a world with characters who were three-dimensional. (There’s a section highlighting the importance of giving ghastly Gaston more of a backstory.) I also enjoyed getting a look at the blend of technologies used to capture Dan Stevens’ performance as The Beast.
The Women Behind Beauty and the Beast: (5:17) Star Emma Watson appears briefly at the start of this featurette, but it’s director Bill Condon who quips that he didn’t intend to have women run this movie…it just happily turned out that way. Instead of focusing on the women in front of the camera, the spotlight here is on the invaluable crew members — Sarah Greenwood (production designer), Katie Spencer (set decorator), Jacqueline Durran (costume designer), Virginia Katz (editor), and Lucy Bevan (casting director) — who helped bring this massive production to life.
From Song to Screen — Making the Musical Sequences: (13:26) Essentially four mini Making Of featurettes focused on “Belle,” “Be Our Guest,” “Gaston,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” There is some great behind-the-scenes stuff here (both technical and storywise), including Condon revealing that the CGI-heavy “Be Our Guest” sequence took 2 ½ years to create from start to finish. Features a Play All option.
Extended Song — “Days in the Sun”: (4:08) Condon offers a quick intro for this alternate version of the song, which flashes back to the Beast’s childhood as a prince and the loss of his mother. (The director initially cast an actress who looked too much like Hattie Morahan’s Enchantress, leading to some confusion for viewers.)
Deleted Scenes: (6:23) Most of these “scenes” are less than a minute long and are comprised of snippets (with unfinished special effects) from the climactic battle between the angry villagers and the enchanted wait staff. The standouts include a longer look at Gaston courting Belle early on and Stephen Merchant’s turn as Monsieur Toilette, which didn’t make the theatrical cut. (Yes, the deleted scenes include “toilette humor.”)
Making a Moment with Celine Dion: (3:24) The legendary singer talks glowingly about the impact “Beauty and the Beast” (the title track from the cartoon) had on her life — she states it gave her a career — and agreeing to perform a song in the new version (“How Does a Moment Last Forever.”)
“Beauty and the Beast” Music Video: (4:02) The lavish music video for the updated version of the song, this time performed by Ariana Grande and John Legend.
Making the Music Video: (2:07) A brief, skippable featurette mostly consisting of Grande and Legend fangirling/fanboying over getting the chance to perform the classic song and bringing their own twist to it.
Disney Song Selection: (33:09) If you don’t want to bother to with all that pesky dialogue and plot, you can click here and go straight to any of the movie’s songs, or simply watch a cut of the film comprised entirely of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice’s tunes.
Beauty and the Beast is the biggest box office hit of the year (so far), and Disney has now delivered an appropriately grand Blu-ray release with top-notch A/V components and a strong array of special features.