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Tale as old as time – ‘Beauty and the Beast’

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Live-action remake loyal to spirit of animated classic

Considering Hollywood’s current proclivity for reboots and remakes and whatnot, it should come as no surprise that the folks at Disney are exploring ways to take advantage of their many already extant and wildly popular properties. And considering that 1991’s animated “Beauty and the Beast” remains one of its most successful offerings ever, it should be even less surprising that they’ve chosen to give it the live-action remake treatment a quarter-century later.

And so we get 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast.” While this film is a bit longer – including three new songs – and a bit darker, it is more or less the same tale that captivated and enchanted children a generation ago as (arguably) the greatest animated film that Disney has ever produced. While one could certainly argue that the new version isn’t a particularly necessary film, there’s no disputing the care that went into its crafting.

We get a bit of a prologue here, where we learn that a hedonistic and harsh prince has been put under a curse. His haughty disdain and unwillingness to help someone in need leads to him being turned into a beast, the residents of his castle being turned into objects and his entire existence struck from the memory of the people.

Some years later, we meet Belle (Emma Watson, “Regression”), a bookish young woman living in a provincial village in the French countryside. She lives with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline, “Ricki and the Flash”) and is on the receiving end of constant side-eye from the villagers who don’t trust a girl who can read. However, local meatheaded hero Gaston (Luke Evans, “The Girl on the Train”) has taken a shine to Belle, much to the chagrin of his foppish sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad, “A Dog’s Purpose”).

When Maurice inadvertently stumbles onto the forgotten lands, he meets the Beast (Dan Stevens, TV’s “Legion”) and is imprisoned. When Belle tracks her father down, she offers herself up as a replacement prisoner, trading her freedom for that of Maurice. It isn’t long before she meets the transformed members of the Beast’s household – candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor, “American Pastoral”) and clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellan, “Mr. Holmes”) and teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson, “Bridget Jones’s Baby”), as well as wardrobe Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald, “Ricki and the Flash”) and harpsichord Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci, TV’ “Feud”) and numerous others.

It turns out that for the curse to be lifted, the Beast must find true love. Belle represents his last chance to do so before it is too late and his is doomed to be forever a monster and his loyal friends are made permanently inanimate.

Of course, it’s not as easy as all of that. And even when it looks like something might blossom between the two, trouble back in the village leads to trouble for not only Belle’s family, but also her new friends.

Although honestly, it’s not like you don’t know how the story goes.

It’s kind of remarkable what director Bill Condon and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopolous have managed to pull off here. This movie could have felt completely derivative in an utterly tiresome way. Honestly, it could have been an almost pointless exercise (well – aside from the massive piles of money it was going to make regardless of quality). Instead, it holds on to much of what made the animated film so magical.

Granted, much of the credit for that should probably go to the songs carried over from the original, all of them great and a few of them legitimate cinematic classics – the title song is a highlight, of course, as is “Be Our Guest.” “Gaston” gets a great rendition as well. Ultimately, no one succumbed to the temptation to try and reinvent the wheel, so kudos are warranted.

(And it’s worth noting that the film is visually sumptuous, doing a phenomenal job of eliciting that same sense of magic and wonder while still maintaining that slight degree of grounding that a live-action interpretation requires. There are some stunning sequences – “Be Our Guest” is particularly on point.)

The cast exudes an effortless charm across the board. Watson is a wonderful fit as Belle, capturing that baseline sweetness while still avoiding any damsel in distress pitfalls. There’s a strength to her performance that really works … even if her singing voice isn’t always completely up to the task at hand. Stevens does fine work as the Beast, even buried under layers of CGI; he conveys a soulfulness throughout that is compelling to watch. And the two of them together have a lovely chemistry.

Evans is a delight as the dunderheaded misogynist Gaston even as Gad steals just about every scene he’s in as the fawning sycophantic LeFou. And the vocal work of the transformed servants is across-the-board solid – McGregor and McKellan are buddy comedy gold, and while Thompson might not have the same pipes, she’s probably the only person who could have adequately filled Angela Lansbury’s teapot as Mrs. Potts.

There’s not a lot new here. The story, the songs – it’s all pretty much the same. But it doesn’t matter. “Beauty and the Beast” is a classic for a reason, and while this remake might not achieve the same beloved heights as its predecessor, it’s still a lovely film that will doubtless enchant and captivate a whole new generation.

[4 out of 5]

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