The latest Beauty and the Beast is a realistic, fleshed-out version of its cartoon predecessor, and not just because it’s live action. Characters in this iteration have solid motivations and are surprisingly believable considering half of them are pieces furniture.
Belle, brought to life by Emma Watson, is a more active participant in her story than her animated counterpart. She does not simply lament her place in a narrow-minded small town, but seeks to improve her circumstances. For instance, she invents gadgets that afford her more reading time and attempts to broaden minds by passing her love of books on to other young women. Her intrepid character and longing for adventure are so thoroughly established that the viewer buys it when she finds herself held hostage in an enchanted castle and doesn’t run screaming every chance she gets.
Keeping her at the castle is Beast, played by a charming Dan Stevens. Ostensibly, she stays as his prisoner, but honestly she is intrigued by him (if she got something pointy to deal with those insatiable forest wolves, she could be out of there in a hurry). This film does something to develop a romantic relationship that a lot of movies fail to do. Beauty and Beast — who fall in love — have SIMILAR INTERESTS. Too often people in movies fall in love because they are the two main characters in a movie. In Beauty and the Beast the two leads begin to develop feelings when they discover a shared love of literature. Eventually, they discuss their mutual loneliness and loss of a parent. Because they have real things to bond over, the viewer doesn’t get hung up on the fact that Belle is into a guy with horns and a tail.
The castle’s other occupants are also easy to love. Intricate and clever character design makes for a delightful supporting cast. Cogsworth is particularly endearing, with a consistently aghast expression and wide-bottomed waddle. Mrs. Potts and son fall a bit short aesthetically, as their faces are simply painted onto their inanimate forms, but Emma Thompson bridges the gap with a warm performance. The viewer may be surprised to find themselves verklempt at the plight of this furniture so skillfully imbued with life.
The familiar songs are in place but kept fresh and appealing with a few new lyrics and a stippling of more complex sentiment. “Something There” is a song made all the more enjoyable with the foundation of deeper characterization, while “Gaston” hits some homoerotic notes that weren’t as prominent in the 1991 film (though the “gay moment” making headlines is frankly underwhelming). There are a couple wholly new songs that can’t quite compete with the classic numbers, but are not unwelcome. Occasionally, the vocal performances are a touch overproduced, but avoid Glee-like soullessness.
While Beauty and the Beast is certainly worth the price of admission, shelling out the cash for 3D isn’t necessary. In fact, a lot of the 3D is a bit of a headache. One sequence in which fine filigree vines dissolve into gilded flecks and swirl around in the air sends the eyes into a panicked search for a focal point. There are a few gimmicky projectiles fired right at the audience — some plates and a snowball — but no thrills worth the extra money.
If you are a fan of the magic in Disney’s first Beauty and the Beast, but also dig a character with sensible motivations, this latest installment should not disappoint.