March 21, 2017 -- This is a movie with big shoes to fill and it does the job nicely with lavish sets and costumes, top notch actors and singers, supported by a skilled technical production crew. Since this is a remake of the 1991 animated film and the 1994 stage musical, it inherits that award-winning Alan Menken score and all those great award-winning songs by Menken, Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman, plus a few new numbers written for this film.
I consider the 1991 film version of this story the finest animated feature ever made (it was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award) but this live-action feature (with a generous amount of digital animation and motion capture) is certainly a worthy addition to the Disney pantheon of musical fantasies. While the 1991 film is aimed more squarely at children, this new film is aimed at adults. It features more complex characters and more moral ambiguities.
The basic story is the same, of course, and many of the same songs appear in the same story slots. The differences in the characters are a bit subtle. Belle (played by Emma Watson of the “Harry Potter” movies) is the non-conformist woman who refuses to marry Gaston (played by Luke Evans of “The Girl on the Train”) a handsome, but boorish hunter, and who is also the most eligible bachelor in the small rural town where they both live.
Belle's father, Maurice (played by Kevin Kline of “The Extra Man”) is trapped in an enchanted castle by a monstrous beast (played by Dan Stevens of “The Fifth Estate”) and Belle agrees to take her father's place as the Beast's prisoner. She is befriended by the enchanted objects in the castle, including Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson). All are under the spell of an enchantress (played by Hattie Morahan). The spell placed on the castle and its inhabitants will remain unbroken until the beast learns to love and is loved in return.
This Belle is more assertive and heroic, and Gaston's friend, LeFou (Josh Gad of “The Wedding Ringer”) is not the pure comic relief he was in the 1991 film. In addition to being subtly gay, LeFou also has more of a moral spine. Maurice is also more complicated. In the original film, he was a kind of loopy mad scientist, but here he is a tinkerer and craftsman who builds clocks and other small machines. His character is more complex, and this film explores his background and character a lot more than the original film did.
Gaston is the villain of this story, and a great villain he is. Luke Evans, along with Emma Watson, Emma Thompson and Dan Stevens, all have surprisingly good singing voices. Of course the best singer of all in the film is six time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, who plays the enchanted wardrobe Madame Garderobe. McDonald, along with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Plumette, and Ray Fearon, who plays Père Robert, provide unexpected diversity in the cast.
This is a very lavish production with great sets, costumes and production design. The enchanted characters in the film, like Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, Madame Garderobe, Plumette and Chip, (Nathan Mack) are 3D computer animated. Somehow, these animated characters just don't have as much personality as the same characters had in the original animated film, where the eyes and mouths especially, were much more attractive and expressive.
Much has been made of the gay characters in the film, but that is actually barely noticeable, with the exception of a very funny gag involving Madame Garderobe dressing three hostile male villagers in women's clothing, a clever twist on the same scene from the original animated film. Director Bill Condon (“Chicago”) and an army of artists have given us a good escapist antidote to the dismal political reality of day to day life in these United States (and England). So, “La La Land” got 14 nominations, really? Then this film deserves to get 28 nominations. This film rates a B.
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