The scores on the doors for Disney’s ambitious series of live action re-workings currently stand at 3 down (Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book), 22 to go. And after the spectacular success of The Jungle Book, number 4 was always going to be under pressure to deliver.
The animated version of Beauty And The Beast was released in 1991, making it a more recent addition to Disney’s animated canon, and easily the most recent to get a reboot. The story itself has become a perennial, having inspiring several other film versions as well as a number of TV series. So we’re probably all familiar with the story: about how the lovely Belle (Emma Watson) discovers that her father has been captured by the Beast (Dan Stevens) who rules a mysterious castle and sets out to free him. How she offers herself as a captive and, over time, forms a bond with the Beast and love blossoms. But what she doesn’t know is that, underneath all the hair, hooves and horns is a prince, whose appearance is the result of a curse from an enchantress.
Director Bill Condon keeps faith with the original by retaining the Beast’s servants Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), Lumiere the candelabra (Ewan McGregor) and Mrs Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson), and even adding a new one in the shape of piano Cadenza (voiced by Stanley Tucci). Arrogant Gaston (Luke Evans) is there as well, pursuing Belle, despite her obvious lack of interest, and he still has Le Fou (Josh Gad) to keep him company and massage his ego. So far, so familiar.
On the surface it all looks great. There’s some spectacular set pieces – “Be Our Guest” is a Busby Berkeley-inspired showstopper that deserves a round of applause in its own right and the final confrontation among the crumbling ruins of the Beast’s castle is impressive. It wears its heart on its sleeve and – tissue warning! – is unashamedly romantic. And there’s some delights among the supporting performances, especially Luke Evans, who clearly had a blast playing Gaston as a pantomime villain, even though he doesn’t have moustache big enough to twirl.
But appearances, as the film likes to point out, can be deceptive. The irony is that there’s little in the way of magic or substance here. The Beast has been substantially toned down to fit a PG certificate: drinking his soup straight from the dish is about as beastly as he gets, making Belle’s love for him less unlikely. Emma Watson looks the part as Belle but falls short of being, in Disney’s own words, a princess for the 21st century: she’s disappointingly lacking in spirit and let’s not mention her singing…
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the film is the way in which actors of the calibre of Thompson, McGregor and McKellen have been used to voice the servants. As their characters have been enchanted in the same way as their master, their true selves are revealed at the end: up until then, the only recognisable voice has been McKellen’s and the rest have gone over our heads. That’s especially true of Stanley Tucci, who is criminally wasted as Cadenza, a non-part if ever there was one.
That’s not to say that Beauty And The Beast isn’t entertaining. The romance is there, so is the action, but what’s in short supply is the magic and the sparkle that every fairy story needs. So now the pressure is on the next Disney re-working to redress the balance. Over to you, Mulan …..
Beauty And The Beast arrives in UK cinemas in IMAX 3D on Friday, 17 March.