The danger of a live-action version of an animated classic that has won over fans for more than 25 years doesn’t just come in the form of cold cynicism with respect to the “cash grab” of the effort, but is far more importantly a matter of said fans not really knowing what they want out of the production. It doesn’t seem that anyone could say that they’d like a shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene recreation of a story they’ve seen dozens of times, but those most enamored with the original are hard-pressed to explain what’s allowed to be different.
It’s a wild task for a company and crew to put into action, especially considering that everyone knows that, all that said, some scenes bloody well better be in the film.
The only way to explain the angle Beauty and the Beast takes on developing its story is to imagine some near-original version of the story that the animated effort might be based on, and try to tell that non-existent story. We can’t go back to the actual original version of the story, because it’s far too removed, but the approach here seems to be to imagine a slightly darker story, and one that explains a lot more of what’s going on. It’s a dangerous move, but one that’s ultimately genius, because it showcases the spirit of the original while adding depth to characters we already knew.
The story may need no introduction, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t set for disaster as soon as things start. If Emma Watson isn’t a Belle we’re prepared to accept, it hardly matters what else the film does. Luckily, though I do wish she might have been a bit taller, Watson is bizarrely perfect in the role. She’s possibly to the good of a lot of practice as a bookish, young woman who stands up to boys, but she nails the subtleties of Belle’s perspective, and it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Meanwhile, Dan Stevens (currently delivering the best television performance in at least five years on Legion) is equally solid as the Beast, though the whole affair is perhaps overplayed at the beginning.
The rest of the cast is a treat, and the catalyst for most of the differences in the story. Kevin Kline is magical as Belle’s father, Maurice, who is less crackpot (you know, until the Beast story) and more “he who doesn’t fit in our village,” opening the door for some important backstory. Gaston (Luke Evans) is even more dastardly, and while there is a bit more in the story that perhaps explains it, it ends up making a little less sense. LeFou (Josh Gad) is obviously a very different character, if for no other reason than no live-action character could be as clearly cartoon as the LeFou of the animated version, and he gets the chance to really spin things around by the end.
The true beauty of the film is that it manages to make you think you’ve seen it before, no matter how far it departs from the story you know. It never moves away from feeling familiar, and that’s a testament to the effort that had to go into this particular theory of story construction. Though we’re watching something that works as the update of an 18th-century story, it’s clear that we’re constantly asking if it makes sense that the story we know could have been drawn from this.
The effort opens the door for Belle to be even stronger, braver, and more clever and compassionate than we knew, or at least to be such things in a more realistic, more tangible way. It also helps the story to recover from one of the problems with the original, which is that it all seems to happen too fast, and without enough that Belle and the Beast actually experience together. It might still happen too fast, that Belle falls in love with a beast, and that he finally sees the error of his ways, but there’s a much better argument now. It was a all a wonderful, little fairy story, but now it’s something powerful.
You may well be nervous about the potential to ruin a favorite classic, but you’ll leave wondering how you were ever duped by such a hollow, uninspired travesty of a telling of this story.