Disney wants us to know that Bill Condon’s “Beauty and the Beast” is a vital live-action remake of its own 1991 animated classic. Alan Menken and Tim Rice wrote three new songs for the film, and in interviews, Condon promised the first “exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.”
They succeeded on one point: The film’s most Broadway-like thrills come from the Menken-Rice tune written as the Beast’s soliloquy. As for that gay moment, it’s tough to know which one he meant. There are a few winks and nods, the most apparent being a gag at the end where Wardrobe dresses three intruders in women’s clothes. In what could have been another tired cross-dressing gag (two men run away in disgust), a third stares directly into camera, beaming. Condon also might have been referring to another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, when Monsieur LeFou (Josh Gad), right-hand man to Belle’s suitor Gaston, dances with a man for a half second.
More than anything, however, the film that opens in theaters this weekend remains faithful to its source material, with glimmering costumes and sets that feel like Disneyland. Condon (“Kinsey,” “Dreamgirls”) practically follows the animated film shot for shot, filling in as necessary for added exposition and a few extra songs. At 129 minutes, compared to the original film’s 110, Condon’s version feels overstuffed. It also feels like that scene in the animated original when the servants dress the Beast for dinner with Belle, powdering his face and fluffing his hair until he looks ridiculous and completely out of place. Disney has given the same treatment to its own property, dressing it up as something it was never meant to be.
As with many Disney stories, “Beauty and the Beast” is based on a fairy tale, this one from 18th-century France by novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, originally titled “La Belle et la Bête.” It has origins in Greek and Roman mythology, and has inspired countless literary, theatrical, and cinematic adaptations. Jean Cocteau first adapted the story to film in 1946, starring his muse and lover Jean Marais as The Beast.
Disney’s 1991 film landed two Oscars, for the original score by Menken and Howard Ashman, and made more than $400 million at the box office. It also won the hearts of countless children, most of whom are now in their late twenties and early thirties and could probably name every song in the original film.
For those who slept through the ’90s, “Beauty and the Beast” tells the story of Belle (Emma Watson, appearing most at home traipsing around a castle), a bookish girl in a provincial town who dreams of something more than marrying hunky suitor Gaston (Luke Evans, sporting a very nice baritone) who talks to himself in mirrors. When her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), doesn’t return from his annual trip to the market, Belle finds him being held in a massive, derelict castle by a grumpy, growling beast (Dan Stevens).
Unbeknownst to Belle (but told to the audience in a prologue), the Beast was once a prince, before a sorceress lay a spell on him and his household. If he can fall in love, and be loved in return, before the enchanted rose loses its last petal, he will be restored to his youthful human form. When beautiful Belle wanders into the castle, naturally the servants fall over themselves to show her a good time (“Be Our Guest”), in hopes that she will be the one to break the spell so that they, too, can return to human form.
True to the original, the not-so-inanimate objects provide comic relief, though they’re not as cute in CGI. The illustrious cast is a bit wasted in voiceover: Sir Ian McKellen as Cogsworth (a clock), Ewan McGregor as Lumière (a candelabra), Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts (a teapot), Stanley Tucci as Cadenza (a piano), Audra McDonald as Wardrobe, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Babette (a feather duster). LeFou also provides some laughs.
Aside from the thrill of its lavish sets and costumes, there isn’t much new to offer in this “Beauty and the Beast.” Even the show-stopping “Be Our Guest” kind of plunks along as the Esther Williams-style dancing plates inspire no more feeling than a cool screensaver.
Timing is everything. A quarter century has passed since we saw Disney’s Belle fall for the Beast; today, the message that behind every rough man is a charming prince (sorry, Emma) is regressive, if not lethal.
“Beauty and the Beast” opens in theaters on March 17.