In a prologue, we see that the Beast was once a handsome but vain and selfish prince who cared only about beauty. An enchantress cursed him to become a beast, the courtiers all turned into furniture, serving pieces, and accessories. If the Beast cannot find a way to love and be loved before the last petal falls from the enchanted rose, they will never return to human form. The Beast has given up. He is angry, hurt, and terrified that he is unlovable, as Stevens shows us with just his voice, posture, and piercing blue eyes.
Emma Watson, best known as Hermione in the Harry Potter films, plays Belle, introduced in the opening musical number as a bit of an outsider in her small “provincial” French village. She loves to read, but seems to have read everything on the one shelf of books in the town. Belle is not concerned with her looks, and Watson is encouragingly messy, with locks of hair falling around her face and sturdy boots instead of the animated version’s flats. We can see that she truly loves to learn and has an independent, adventurous spirit.
Belle adores her father (Kevin Kline as Maurice), an artist turned repairman, and she is an inventor herself, creating a washing machine that can do the laundry while she reads. Gaston (a terrific Luke Evans, clearly enjoying the way Gaston enjoys being Gaston) is an arrogant soldier who wants to marry Belle because she is beautiful and because she is the only girl in town who does not think he is dreamy. “She hasn’t made a fool of herself just to gain my favor.” Like the prince who turned into a beast, Gaston judges people only on how they look and how they respond to him.
Away from home, Maurice is chased by wolves and ends up seeking shelter at the Beast’s mysterious enchanted castle where the candelabra and teacup can talk. As he leaves, he picks a rose for Belle and the Beast (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”) furiously captures him. Belle tries to rescue her father but ends up taking his place as the Beast’s prisoner.
But in this “tale as old as time,” we know that Belle and Beast will begin as “barely even friends, then somebody bends, unexpectedly,” and it is genuinely touching to see how it unfolds. With additional songs from original composer Alan Menken (with lyrics from Tim Rice, along with some lyrics written by the late Howard Ashman for the original film that were not used), some backstory about both Belle and the Prince, and a more thoughtful portrayal of the development of their relationship. I was especially glad to see that their shared love of books played an important part in their connection.
The storyline is unexpectedly resonant with contemporary challenges, with the greatest threat from an angry mob suspicious of anything unfamiliar and easily spurred to violence. We get to see a bit more of the enchantress behind the curse as well.
The two moments fans of the original film will count on are the “Beauty and the Beast” waltz in the ballroom (now sung by Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts) and the musical extravaganza “Be Our Guest” (now sung by Ewan McGregor as Lumiere), and both are gorgeously, joyously stunning, but the moments that stay with us are the sensitive performances and the tenderness of the relationships.
Parents should know that this film includes cartoon/fantasy peril and violence, wolves, a monster, a curse, some scary images, and a subtle reference to a gay crush.
Family discussion: What did the Beast learn from his enchantment? Why is Gaston so selfish? What do Belle and the Beast discover that they have in common?
If you like this, try: the animated original and the live action “Jungle Book” and “Cinderella”